12 June 2019

The Government’s latest technology strategy is lacking in ambition and measurable commitments, argues Lewis Lloyd.

Government likes strategies. In the technology space alone it currently has a cyber security strategy, a transformation strategy, a digital strategy, an industrial strategy, an AI Sector Deal, and a National Data Strategy – which we called for last year –  is due in 2020. Now it has a Technology Innovation Strategy too.

The new strategy has many strengths. It offers a useful overview of the work government has done so far preparing for and experimenting with emerging technologies, identifies key obstacles that still need to be addressed, and serves as a much-needed push for a more joined-up approach. But, as was the case with the 2017 Transformation Strategy, it offers little sense of precisely what the Government plans to do, and when.

Lack of political clarity has left the strategy stripped of timelines and pound signs

Even compared to previous government strategies, the Technology Innovation Strategy is striking for the absence of concrete, measurable commitments.

Its ‘Next Steps’ include promises to launch a new online marketplace for public sector technology innovation – an early, ‘beta’ version of which went live in April for organisations to test out – and to double the number of digital, data and technology apprentices recruited centrally in government to address skills gaps. But no time frame is given in either case.

All the other plans are focused on ‘exploring’, ‘reviewing’, ‘understanding’ and ‘putting in place [further] plans’. These statements of intent are all very sensible – getting to grips with the Government’s ‘legacy technology challenge’, for instance, is long overdue. But while the strategy is a useful record of government thinking to date, it commits primarily to thinking just a little bit more.

In many ways, this is understandable. Financial commitments over discrete time frames would have been a shock when the duration and timing of the next Spending Review – originally anticipated earlier this year – remain unclear, and a new prime minister could yet reverse any substantive policy commitments. And, from the Autumn, Brexit could blow almost everything out of the water anyway.

This tentative approach also reflects technological uncertainty

Politics is not the only complicating factor. As the minister, Oliver Dowden, notes in the strategy’s foreword, ‘the speed at which the emerging technology landscape is changing means we will continually need to refresh and review our approach.’

The resulting focus on ‘fixing the plumbing’ is sensible. Government still needs to shake off unwieldy legacy systems, find effective ways to share data between departments and ensure it has the right skills before it can properly benefit from new technologies like artificial intelligence. In the UK, as elsewhere, government’s use of emerging technologies remains nascent, so a definitive, long-term strategy would have felt premature. And given the difficulties in predicting future technological advances, anything too conclusive would have been unwise.

That said, the strategy could have gone further. It could have given more of a sense of what new technologies might make possible, to stimulate the imagination of the civil servants who will be responsible for thinking up creative ways to apply them. And its focus rarely strays beyond ‘services,’ when the full impact of new technologies on government will be felt across the board – from internal accounting processes to policy making – and could lead to a complete transformation in the shape and functioning of the state as a whole. We hope to address the potential depth and breadth of the impact emerging and future technologies could have on government in our new programme of work.

The momentum around future technology in government must not be taken for granted

With political and civil service bandwidth dominated by Brexit, it is positive that the Government is looking ahead at all. The strategy’s accompanying guide to using AI in the public sector, put together by the new Office for Artificial Intelligence, follows recent appointments to the AI Council and the creation of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation last year. This all reflects the high degree of momentum around technology in government, and the minister is right to be proud, in his foreword, of the UK’s track record on digital government.

Maintaining this momentum is crucial, but it won’t be easy. Core elements of the new strategy are contingent on the National Data Strategy, which already appears to be behind schedule due to DCMS’s heavy Brexit workload, and key commitments in the strategy – such as to revise the way departments apply for funding for digital projects, which we identified as a key problem area last year – rely on the willingness of already-stretched departments to follow through.

The strategy identifies the right problems, but leaves open the questions of how and when they will be addressed. Further progress depends on how these questions are answered, but it is far from clear whether or not government will have the capacity – not to mention the ministerial permission – to do so any time soon.

Further information

We publish weekly updates on our work on digital government on our Medium page. Get in touch with any thoughts or suggestions at digital@instituteforgovernment.org.uk.

Comments

It is also worth mentioning the National Shipbuilding Strategy in this mix, given the enormous amount of parliamentary time that has been devoted to debating and examining the government’s policy on naval shipbuilding, since the publication of its National Shipbuilding Strategy in September 2017.

Whereas the second of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers and the Type 26 Global Combat Ships are currently in the manufacture and build phase, the shipbuilding procurement programme that has attracted the most attention is the Fleet Solid Support ships requirement for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary service. These vessels are designed to supply Royal Navy ships at sea with ammunition, explosives and food.

The government’s intent behind the National Shipbuilding Strategy is absolutely clear – to restore the shipbuilding industry’s competitiveness and enhance its preparedness for the post-Brexit era. This is confirmed by its own words (on page 24):

“Our intent is to compete non-warships in order to maintain UK competitive edge for shipbuilding. By testing UK yards against foreign competition we will be able to ensure that the UK sector remains competitive. The Fleet Solid Support ships will therefore be subject to an international competition ……….”

It is this policy of subjecting the FSS programme to open competition on the global market that has caused all the controversy in Parliament. Hitherto, it has been the practice of governments of all persuasions to hand out single-source development contracts to selected UK-based defence contractors on a preferential basis.

Additionally, it may be that this programme has seen some significant changes in the way it is being procured – most notably, the overall budget for it has not been disclosed publicly, and the Ministry of Defence is requiring bidders to contribute significant amounts of private sector funding into the programme, upfront.

What’s more, the FSS programme is to be let using a punitive instrument in MoD’s commercial arsenal, a firm fixed price contract, to thwart any attempt by a foreign shipyard in receipt of substantial state aid to quote an artificially low selling price in its response to the invitation to tender, with the objective of undercutting competitors – which means that any cost increases which might occur due to delays, for example, during the term of the contract will have to be paid for by the contractor, not MoD.

That the MoD has decided to elicit private sector investment capital into this procurement programme is not entirely a surprise – only, it should have been made right at the start of the contest, not half-way into the competition. After all, it is called the private sector for a reason – so that it can use private sector funds, not public sector subsidy to innovate, grow, create jobs and make a profit.

Indeed, in its latest policy statement on defence procurement expressed in the Defence Industrial Policy published in December 2017, the government says (on page 32):

“We want to encourage more private venture capital into the defence sector, including from non-traditional defence suppliers. Co-investment (where both industry and Government jointly invest) is commonplace in the civil aerospace and automotive sectors, and we want to see more of this in defence”.

So, on the FSS programme, MoD is only implementing government policy as agreed by stakeholder departments in Whitehall, including the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury.

However, on the negative side, MoD in its infinite wisdom has retained the flawed practice of asking for a plethora of Management Plans as a response to the FSS invitation to tender – instead of requiring bidders to scope a fully costed and priced Programme of Work to advance the developmental status of their starting-points for their technical solutions from their existing condition, to a point where they will satisfy the qualitative and quantitative requirements expressed in the technical specification.

This tried-and-failed practice has, yet again, given bidders a chance to stuff these plans full of:

(a) Pretty pictures and diagrams.

(b) Grossly exaggerated claims regarding the maturity of the starting-point for the technical solution.

(c) Warm soothing words, false promises and hollow statements of intent skilfully crafted in such a way as to allow Contractors to rescind on work commitments later on, during the contract performance phase.

(d) Organisational charts with names of self-important people on overheads who will not be getting hands-on with the work to be done in the next phase.

(e) An asking price quoted in the ITT response which bears no correlation to the work intended to be performed by the contractor during the follow-on phase.

(f) A non-existent or useless schedule.

Such is the stupid folly of the moment that this is what passes for best practice in Project Management in the 21st century, as practiced by MoD and defence contractors!

It is for this reason alone, that the FSS programme is destined to deliver the same poor performance, characterised by persistent delays and cost overruns, that has plagued legacy defence procurement programmes over the last several decades.
@JagPatel3