The innovation strategy should not be a minister saying ‘that one looks shiny’ – Dowden’s pragmatic plan

Written by Sam Trendall on 7 September 2018 in Features

Minister for implementation pledges that the upcoming government innovation strategy will be a practical strategy to address problems

Credit: Chris McAndrew/ CC BY SA 3.0

The upcoming government innovation strategy will be a practical plan to address service challenges with appropriate solutions – and not simply a politician being beguiled by technological bells and whistles, according to minister for implementation Oliver Dowden.

Dowden (pictured above), who holds ministerial responsibility for the Government Digital Service, said that the government’s innovation strategy – due to be published by the end of the current fiscal year – will focus on the needs of public services providers, rather than on whizzy new tech.

“The idea is not to have a strategy for the sake of it – it is about understanding the landscape at the moment,” he said.  “Sometimes politicians have a tendency to see a shiny new technology and say ‘let’s make government do this’. The purpose of this strategy is to understand where the needs are and what new technologies are available, and then come up with a coherent strategy around that.”

Dowden was speaking at the Building the Smarter State conference hosted in central London this week by industry body techUK. Following the minister’s address, he was asked by techUK chief executive Julian David if there was one particular emerging technology or innovation that excited him most of all.

Sometimes politicians have a tendency to see a shiny new technology and say ‘let’s make government do this’. The purpose of this strategy is to understand where the needs are and what new technologies are available

“I really do not think that is the approach [we should take],” Dowden responded. “It should not be a minister putting his finger in the air and saying: ‘that one looks shiny’. We are not going to be the bleeding stump at the absolute edge of technology, and we are not going to compete with huge tech firms. Our [goal] to understand the challenges. We have stuff that is done routinely in the private sector that can and should be done in the public sector, and should deliver cash savings and improvements to people’s lives.”

The innovation strategy is currently being developed by a dedicated new team housed within GDS, who Dowden said yesterday will work “in collaboration with experts inside and outside of government”.

The plan, which will address the entirety of the country’s public-services landscape, will be designed to tie in with the government’s existing strategies in the areas of cybersecurity, digital, industrial, and transformation – as well as the 2019 spending review and the Geospatial Strategy due for publication next year. 

The development of an innovation strategy follows the publication of a GDS policy paper last month that laid out the findings and recommendations of a “landscape review” of government innovation conducted by external consultant Martin Smith.

Dowden told delegates at the techUK event: “The adage ‘innovate or die’ already feels dated, I want this country to ‘innovate and thrive’. To do this, we need a strategy. Meaningful change rarely happens by chance. Sustainable change never does. That’s why I am leading an ambitious strategy will give us the impetus to deliver efficiently and effectively.”

He added: “The strategy will share our vision of how government can use emerging technologies to deliver world-class public services. It will encourage collaboration between the public and private sector and identify areas where investment can increase the pace of innovation. A strategy will guard against the risks, and there are risks that come with new technologies and digital developments. A strategy will also address how government should establish and enforce ethical standards when using emerging technologies.”

Solving challenges
Dowden also used his address at this week’s event to unveil the second round of challenges that will be featured in the GovTech Catalyst programme. Launched in May, the scheme allows public sector entities to put forward challenges currently facing them. The Catalyst then invites businesses and individuals to put forward new ideas or technologies that could potentially solve or mitigate these challenges.  

Winning proposals receive an initial £50,000 of government cash to further develop their idea, potentially followed by an additional £500,000 to create a full prototype.

The first round of challenges to receive funding included a challenge set by the Home Office to identify and remove terror-promoting images posted online by Daesh, and another proposed by Monmouthshire Council, which wanted to address loneliness and isolation in rural areas of the south Wales county. 

The second group of challenges chosen for the GovTech Catalyst are:

  • How might we improve firefighter safety and operational response?
    Submitted by Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service
  • How might we make better use of data to guide public sector audits?
    Northern Ireland Audit Office
  • How might we automatically detect and identify illicit goods during the journey across the border without impacting fluidity of trade?
    Border Force

  • How might we understand the overlaps between business regulations? 
    The Better Regulation Executive – part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 
  • How might we guarantee prescription continuity while people move between care providers? 
    Northern Ireland Prison Service and the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust

“As well as solving specific problems… the GovTech Catalyst is a testing ground for new technologies. It allows public bodies to experiment early so that they can scale the right solutions,” Dowden said. “I think these are all worthy of GovTech funding. I am excited to see how they progress.”

The minister also provided an update on the first round of challenges, and revealed that “five private sector suppliers are in the final stages of a competitive process to work on solutions” to the Home Office challenge to find and remove Daesh imagery. 

“These tech suppliers offer a range of expertise in artificial intelligence technologies such as machine learning and computer vision,” he added.

Money for the GovTech Catalyst is drawn from a £20m govtech fund unveiled by prime minister Theresa May last year.

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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