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GDS chief says UK gov is big enough to “dictate” to vendors about its needs

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez February 2, 2016
Iain Patterson, CEO of the all important Common Technology Services within GDS, said this week that the government needs to have a grown up conversation with the vendor community.

Iain Patterson, now CEO of Common Technology Services within the Government Digital Service, previously director of technology at DVLA, has said that government spend on technology is significant enough for it to “dictate” to vendors what it needs from them in terms of their technology stack - as long as it isn’t wildly off-track from their future roadmap.

Patterson took to the stage at Oracle’s Digital Transformation IT summit this week in London and gave a very insightful talk about the future role of the all important Common Technology Services (CTS) division within GDS, which is likely to play a key role in the future of Government-as-a-Platform.

CTS is fairly new to Whitehall and Patterson is fairly new to his role - having just finished up at Swansea-based DVLA, where he made a significant impact on the organisation with regards to breaking up outsourcing contracts, insourcing skills, creating a vibrant digital community outside the London bubble and introducing new online services such as the online vehicle tax system.

Patterson has now been brought over to Whitehall to think through how CTS could help departments build better digital services and make technology teams have greater ownership over their work.

However, to date we have heard little about what the role of CTS will be and what impact it will have. Patterson said that he is still thinking this through, but gave us more detail about what to expect.

His key message to the audience was that government isn’t special and should be thinking about what commonality it has across functions. Patterson said:

I don’t think that government is special or different than any other business. You may think we’ve got a monopoly, but actually if you look out there, there is a lot of companies coming up that say they will do your interaction with government for you. You can’t stop them doing that.

There will be broker systems that come up, but we want to be the first choice all the time, so we are competing. We are competing in that marketplace and we have got to make sure that we look after the citizens, so they don’t go off to those other sites. Because we want that data.

Government is a marketplace

This is the first time that I’ve heard someone from GDS talk publicly about the idea that government is big enough to become a marketplace and to tell the vendor community what it needs (although I’ve written about this before). This is most likely to take the form of standards and APIs, which plays directly into the idea of common technology services.

For example, if government is setting the agenda on APIs and standards, the technology from a variety of providers could easily be plugged in and swapped out. Equally, this could allow for a CTO to request a technology, which GDS could then hold an auction for the lowest price - it doesn’t need to worry about where the technology is coming from (in theory), as it could just be plugged in.

That being said, price isn’t everything…

But this is what Patterson had to say:

I am also looking at the large vendors sitting at the table with me to understand where they are going with their products, to make sure they are aligned. Total spend in government on IT is £17 billion a year. That’s an awful lot of money.

I believe with that size of market, government can become a marketplace and can actually start to dictate with vendors the sorts of things its looking for in its products. As long it’s not wildly off, we should be able to leverage that and talk to them as grown ups about their strategy being in line with our requirements.

Creation of open standards, APIs, setting rules in those spaces to say that’s how you ought to interact with government, for payment it looks like this…can you please do that? There’s a huge market there. Why build payments systems ourselves, when you can plug into those.


iain patterson
Iain Patterson, CEO of Common Technology Services at GDS

Thankfully, Patterson also spent some time talking about the importance of skills. I’ve written a bit about this recently, as it could be a real stumbling block to the future success of digital in government.

What the government is trying to do will result in in-house teams having to manage quite technical architectures, whereas for years it has essentially outsourced a lot of these skills and resources. Whilst GDS has done a brilliant job in bringing in some top-level skills, which have proved effective in providing inspiration, I’m not convinced that these skills have filtered down throughout the organisations.

For example, I had a conversation with someone from a digital agency recently that was working on a project at one of the larger Whitehall departments, who said that there was a great deal of conflict between the internal teams at the department, the GDS team working on the project and the agency’s team. There were conflicting priorities and varying levels of capability.

Patterson recognises that this is something that needs to change. He said:

What have we learnt? It’s really about the people you have within your organisation, understanding the skills you have within your organisation. And deploying them in the right way, what training is needed? What is the junction you are going to need those skills? Because that’s really important. If you don’t know the journey you want and you don’t know how to get there with those skills, then you are lost.

We can move very quickly in this digital marketplace and not necessarily have the skills on-board to pick up and cope with the aftermath of the decisions we are making.

He added that CTS is going to probably be made up of people from within departments, rather than a separate central team. Patterson said:

I think the first thing is to really clarify what CTS is. Because when I talk to people in government, it means a lot of things to a lot of people, they all think it’s going to come along and save the day. But you turn around and ask them what CTS is, they wouldn’t necessarily understand what it is. They talk about common platforms, common items, but actually it’s a series of things. And I need to articulate very carefully what that is.

The other point is to get the right level of engagement and buy-in. Instead of sitting in the centre and creating a central function that talks to people, and sets things up as policies and structures, what I am going to do, which may be a little bit different, is to bring people in from the departments and build up my team from departments. Bring everybody on board, have people that are ambassadors that can articulate their needs and their department’s needs.

Finally, Patterson noted that it’s people and their behaviours that will be the biggest barrier to success for CTS. He said:

The biggest barrier that I came across was culture and I think it’s the same as any organisation. You are making something happen that’s different. And a lot of people have been settled in the way things have worked. And people are fearful, especially in digitisation. It means jobs, it means can you automate things in my department? And it’s very difficult to articulate what that world looks like for people when you change it, because it’s not going to stop, there’s no fixed point in time.

My take

Fascinating talk from Patterson and it’s great to get some more detail from him about the future role of CTS. That being said, he’s still being careful about articulating what a government marketplace means - that may be because he’s still thinking it through, but I’ve got a feeling it’s because it’s a plan that will be unique to anything we’ve seen before in the public sector and he doesn’t want to scare people too soon. But that’s just me speculating.

However, I like the direction this is headed. £17 billion is a lot of annual spend on IT.

It’s also good to hear Patterson talk about skills. That’s a real sticking point for the government. And I’m still not sure how it’s going to attract the right skills to make this happen.

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