Over at Management Matters, David Chassels has this to say about my guest post on my new book, [amazon_link id=”9814351105″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Sidestep and Twist[/amazon_link]:
[quote]I do not think James quite understands what “real” innovation is about. First is to recognise from idea to a production ready product takes minimum 5 years more likely 10. He like many confuses innovation with just trying to a job better with established resources.[/quote]
David is the CEO of a software company called Procession Software. He made a pitch to me and my team when I was Chief Technology Officer at the DWP. He continues in his comment to say this about it:
[quote]To sum up it was a fiasco – maybe James was under pressure to ignore breakthrough technology. James had real opportunity to tackle the very issue he raises about genuine breakthroughs and like most failed.[/quote]
David is entitled to his opinions of course, which he went on to express vocally to our then-Permanent Secretary and others after we concluded our evaluation. However, I would just say this: I was under no pressure at all to ignore breakthroughs, nor to deal with only incumbent suppliers. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Actually , a focus on innovation and dealing with smaller suppliers is government policy, and one I fully supported in my time in government, obviously so since I got into more hot water for doing so than anything else I ever did whilst there.
But I think, since it has been a year or more since I was in Government, I can now more freely make some comments about what it’s like to deal with some suppliers – especially ones who run the British Innovation tag line – when you’re in government.
As a senior civil servant, you are especially wary of two things. One is appearing in the media because some decision you’ve made – right or wrong – gets called into question. The other is being caught up in politics, the sort with a Capital P.
Into such a mix, add an “innovative” technology supplier who believes they’re being locked out of government procurement, for whatever reason.
Several things follow when you make an unfavourable (to them) decision based on a business case or technical assessment.
Firstly, they’ll threaten to “use their network”, which invariably means they’ll go to any authority they can get to listen. Such threats need to be heeded by anyone who makes decisions, and usually kick off a pile of additional work needed to defend a position in case a Minister or Permanent Secretary asks.
The Civil Service, by the way, does not make arbitrary decisions without consideration. So many people participate in everything significant that “arbitrary” is a practical impossibility anyway. The glacial slowness of the public sector is one ramification of this; the other is you usually get the best decision available within whatever constraints exist.
And there are always constraints. Such as, for example, large legacy technology estates which would cost millions (often billions) to change at tax payers expense.
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A case in point was reported by Computer Weekly and elsewhere. It was a situation where despite the fact the technology was good, in the overall context of the department, we couldn’t get the business case to work.
Ultimately, this supplier then went off to the Public Accounts Committee and suggested we were in thrall to our big suppliers who could basically control purchasing decisions if they “harmed the interests of incumbent suppliers”.
Actually, as I explained then, the real reason was we had so much existing stuff that we’d have to rip and replace we couldn’t get the numbers to stack up.
I fully understand the disappointment, but I don’t know how the taxpayer would have reacted if we’d decided to spend millions now for savings quite a bit less than that.
The point of this post is this: what motivation does anyone of seniority in the public sector have to stray from conventional and predictable contracts when the personal downside for taking a risk on British innovation – particularly from small suppliers – is substantial?
Taking pot shots at any one with any profile in government service seems to be de rigour in Britain, actually. After I left the DWP to join Spigit, for example, one of Spigit’s competitors decided to use my ex-position to harm us as we were starting our operations here. As I blogged then, much of the information reported was wrong, but there were very real risks to Spigit, and consequently, to my own employment with the company.
Now, I do not for one moment suggest there should a reduction in oversight of the operations of government, or that the work of the civil service should be clothed in secrecy.
I will say this though: if you want government to adopt British innovation, to work with smaller companies with great products, and to take a few risks, then you have to accept also that there will be failures, and occasional wastage of tax payers money, and in particular, decision making that requires protection of the individuals who made the decisions.
In corporate world, these are fundamentally understood principals for any organisations that’s serious about innovation, but nothing like that presently exists for Civil Servants. The media, in particular, loves a story about anyone in the public sector who is seen to “have gotten it wrong”.
Whilst I really enjoyed working for the UK Government, there is one lesson I’ve learned from all this; the only innovation that can be introduced by civil servants with a long term career plan to stay is that generated from within.
Media-driven perception to the contrary, there are plenty of bright people working in the public sector in the UK with plenty of big ideas who are more than up for an innovation challenge, by the way.
It is to them that we must look if we want a brilliantly working public sector, since the private one – especially smaller suppliers who have an axe to grind – are building minefields in their misguided attempts to “get a level playing field”.