This week I had a chance to sit down with Keith Block, Salesforce Chief Operating Officer, and Andy Lawson, UK country head, high up the Salesforce Tower in London, where Westminister provided a suitable backdrop from 37 floors up for a discussion of government tech trends.
When I last spoke to Block in the U.S., he had been one of the Salesforce representatives to attend a cross-industry day at the White House where the intent was to brainstorm ideas for the digital transformation of government. At the time, Block was upbeat about some of the ideas in the pot. He remains so:
I think it's actually progressing very, very well. So there's a cloud-first mandate. There's been a lot of things in the press about contracts and contract awards. There's been a lot of things publicized about who's getting awarded what. So I was actually at the White House in the last eight weeks meeting with some folks to talk about the digital transformation.
We've also had subsequent meetings with members of the administration who've come out to San Francisco to talk to us as well. So I think all is well in that world in terms of how they're moving the ball. Now, it's a very, very large organization. Governments, they march to a different beat. It's not always easy, but I like the fact that people are pushing it and we're helping them.
There’s a lot at stake here, not just more efficiencies or cost savings. Last year’s Connected Citizen Report from Salesforce found that over two thirds of citizens have better customer experiences with private sector bodies than with their public sector counterparts. I noted at the time:
Respondents felt that private enterprises resolve customer service issues more quickly (62%), care more about people as customers (52%), provide easier ways to communicate via the likes of text and social media (45%), and have more engaged employees (44%), than public sector organizations.
So, something that’s crucial to bear in mind is what the point of tech in government is. In other words, what’s the objective that’s being aired for through digital transformation. Block observes:
I think there's always the play that's going to be the efficiency angle. But at the end of the day, what is it for? It's for higher levels of service to the citizens. So, for example, we do a lot of work with the Veterans' Administration. That's something that we're very, very passionate about because we want to make sure that our veterans are taken well care of. The USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) is a great example of some of the work that we're doing to make sure that our farmers are taken care of. There are things in city and state governments around services that are provided to the citizens. So that sort of thing, it's rewarding. It's also very consistent with our values and our culture.
But I think the whole modernization of the government, it is ripe. If you think about the legacy systems and how they've been built over time, what sort of expertise was used to build them, do they even talk to each other? The value of data, there's just so much opportunity there to do the right thing for the country, but more importantly the right thing for citizens.
From a UK perspective, Lawson perceives a different type of conversation being had with government as a whole as well as with individual departments, but the legacy systems point made by Block is as relevant this side of the Atlantic:
I've been in government a long time. My background is I've spent a lot of time in government. You see things going around in circles. The key point is about that some of systems are still run in Cobol. We talk about digital skills' gap. How many people write in Cobol? How many people can you get to get Cobol? So some of the things are kept.
So, it's about how do we make sure that we can help support the government on that sets an agenda? That's what we want to play and that's the conversations we're having about how do we help them make this transformation. And it's a slow journey but it has to be get there. If we can free up some of that legacy and spend that in innovation then we will start moving things forward again. We have to take the brakes off some of that old systems that are not fit for purpose.
The skills gap issue is one that is likely to become even more urgent post-Brexit and was one subject that was discussed at the recent meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May at 10 Downing Street during London Tech Week. Salesforce was one of the companies represented at the meeting which Lawson says was a good chance to talk with senior policy makers:
We talked about it a lot...when we were in Numnber 10 and we've seen that the digital skills' gap is a main issue…[As Salesforce] we're looking at exploring all options. We're looking at how do we build the graduates, and we're looking at bringing in some real quality people. I met a great company a couple of weeks ago called workingmom.com which is about bringing people back in who've had maybe a long time off for parenting, etc. and they want to get back in. So we do a bit of work with them because it's a superb pool of talents that we can tap into.
My meeting with Block and Lawson took place a few days after Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington made a public declaration of support and enthusiasm for outsourcing as a critical enabler of public services delivery, some thing I found very uncomfortable in terms of the seeming about-turn in government thinking that it appears to represent.
There’s an old idea that outsourcing a problem without tackling it doesn’t make that problem go away; it just gives it over to someone else to deal with, but it’s still a problem. While not commenting specifically on the Lidington remarks, Block does caution that outsourcing for its own sake isn’t enough:
The tragedy of just outsourcing to a mess-for-less model is that it does not provide a higher level service to the citizen. So without that transformation, you might be able to squeeze cost, which would be a goal because that money could be repurposed to do something. It may be an interim step to squeeze cost so that more transformation could take place. But as an end game, it probably is not the strategy for a citizen to help citizens or provide a higher level service.
For its part, Salesforce continues to see the public sector as a market ripe with opportunity and crying out for transformation. Block notes:
Our public sector business, particularly in the United States, has done incredibly well...that business thrives. We see that opportunity all over the world. We just need to make sure that we have the right infrastructure to be able to go after that business. That takes an investment. It's not just the hardware and the technology, it's also the certifications and all the things that you need to do the business. So that business is still very, very strong for us.
The potential for transformation in the public sector on both sides of the Atlantic has, of course, been the subject of much debate for many years and Salesforce has made a meaningful contribution to that. In the UK, I still remember that CEO Marc Benioff’s dressing-down of government ministers reportedly rescued the G-Cloud program from heading down a rabbit hole dug by virtualisation vested interests!
In the U.S., the Trump administration’s creation of the White House Office of Innovation has generally been seen as a step in the right direction. But there’s a lot to play for here - and the recent arguments raised by the likes of Oracle, IBM and Microsoft over a huge Pentagon cloud contract, whose specification seemed to favor Amazon, is indicative of the financial stakes for vendors.
The most important point made by Block in our conversation was the reminder of the need to think about why government - big or small, federal or local, right or left-leaning - is investing in digital transformation at all. It’s to deliver better services to citizens. All too often that gets forgotten in the hype surrounding new technology or in the ambitions of policymakers to be on the bleeding edge of modernity for modernity’s sake.