Cabinet Office Minister launches Spark - new online marketplace for ‘future tech’ suppliers to gov

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez June 11, 2019
Whilst pitched as a new mechanism for SMEs to work with government, the dynamic purchasing system only has seven suppliers, one of which is Accenture.

Cabinet Office Minister for Implementation, Oliver Dowden, announced the launch of a new online marketplace - dubbed Spark - to allow suppliers of ‘future tech’ a new route to working with government buyers. Spark is a dynamic purchasing system - meaning that suppliers can apply to join at any point - and focuses on eight technology areas that include IoT, AI, data, wearables and simulated environments.

However, whilst being pitched as a new mechanism for SMEs to work with government buyers, Spark has only launched with seven suppliers listed, one of which is Accenture.

Other suppliers listed include Core Systems, CTI Digital, Ocasta Studios and Pinacl Solutions.

In a speech at the start of London Tech Week, Dowden said:

The UK has led the world in harnessing technology to transform public services, but we cannot afford to sit back. Adoption of new technologies by the private sector is changing how people live their lives and the public sector has to pick up the pace to stay relevant.

Artificial intelligence is already being used to identify rogue garages and improve prison safety, but government can go much further. New technologies like AI can deliver better services for less and I am determined that government is at the forefront of this revolution.

Through initiatives like Spark, I also want to make it easier for start-ups and small businesses to deliver services for government so that we make the most of the UK’s thriving GovTech sector.

Spark has been developed using a filter system to help customers find relevant suppliers. It has a number of defined tech areas that have been developed with customer input, which the Crown Commercial Service has said focus on the “emerging technologies that are predicted to have the largest impact over the next 2 to 5 years”.

Suppliers wanted to join the marketplace need to demonstrate an innovation that is either “radical” or “disruptive” (both of which are defined here). Once an application is complete, the process to assess and appoint a supplier to the marketplace may take up to a maximum of 15 working days.

Despite CCS claiming that Spark already has a “wide range of organisations on the marketplace”, some observers on Twitter have already questioned the presence of Accenture as a supplier, as well as the small number of suppliers listed at launch.

Technology Innovation Strategy.

Alongside Spark, the Minister for Implementation also announced a new Technology Innovation Strategy, setting out the government’s approach to “enabling widespread adoption of new technologies across the public sector”.

Central to this is a new AI Guide, which is hoped will be used across government to help departments implement AI, in a “safe an ethical way”.

Digital Secretary, Jeremy Wright said:

Artificial intelligence is already having a positive impact across society - from improving fraud detection to better and quicker diagnoses of medical conditions.

The UK government has already been recognised as world-leading in its readiness for AI and we continue to push leaders across the public sector to recognise its impact in delivering more personalised and efficient experiences.

Our newly appointed AI Council of industry experts will boost the growth and use of AI in the UK further by helping us to realise its full potential.

The AI Guide is made up of three core parts, which include: Assessing, planning and managing artificial intelligence; Using artificial intelligence ethically and safely; and Examples of artificial intelligence in use.

The examples section includes case studies from the Department for Transport, GDS, the Ministry of Justice and the Land Registry.

The ethical and safe use of AI guide includes advice on building a culture of “responsible innovation” and how departments can establish a set of actionable principles that include fairness, accountability, sustainability and transparency.

Looking forward, the Technology Innovation Strategy also states that the government will next be looking to:

  • understand the extent of government’s legacy technology challenge and put in place plans to resolve it.

  • explore how we should update our current standards in light of new technologies, and how we can continue to support government to make better use of data as we prepare to publish our first National Data Strategy

  • work collaboratively with stakeholders in all sectors to support the development of interoperable digital identity market in the UK. We will ensure there is the data, standards and certification, plus the appropriate form of governance, to ensure the safe and effective use digital identities across the economy.

My take

Spark is an interesting idea and expands on the government’s G-Cloud framework - albeit with notable differences. For example, this is a dynamic marketplace where suppliers are able to join at any point and prices aren’t fixed for any duration. In addition, Spark appears to differ in its approach in helping buyers find the suppliers they need, in that it doesn’t rely on search for its functionality, instead favouring filters. However, launching with just 7 suppliers isn’t exactly a strong start and if we’ve learned anything from G-Cloud, it’s that it will require a huge amount of educational and promotional activities. We will be watching closely with interest.