Innovative Government Won’t Come from Small Suppliers

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.

[hr]Is this post interesting to you? You might also like James’ new book [amazon_link id=”9814351105″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Sidestep and Twist[/amazon_link] – its controversial![hr]

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”.

9 Responses to“Innovative Government Won’t Come from Small Suppliers”

  1. Gareth Bradley
    February 3, 2012 at 9:08 am #

    So Chassels thinks he will just generalise?

    I can think of 3/4 companies (in a space of 10 months) that the innovation team went out on a limb for. Generalising just demonstrates lack of understanding an often sour grapes in my opinion.

    The IT branches of the civil service are constantly looking at smaller suppliers but it’s always got to be cost effective and feasible. At the end of the day, DWP could not sacrifice its ability to pay benefit to the public just because a smaller supplier wants to play a Political game!

    • jawgardner
      February 5, 2012 at 10:27 am #

      Quite. It is an ongoing problem, I think, for anyone who remains in the Civil Service.

  2. March 2, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    Hi James
    Always good to hear how things sit on the other side! Just to clear up a point that the journey to DWP was after 10 years of going round in circles with Government which included eventually the acknowledgement that the policy was to rely on suppliers to do the best for the taxpayer! My “beef” with DWP was not so much the decision it was the way we were treated and no proper investigation took place – you know what I mean!

    Let’s move on to an important subject as to why UK is so poor at seeing real innovation successfully exploited. It is interesting as a public the UK is hungry to try new technology but when it comes to institutionalised buying we are very poor at innovation adoption. Why is this? It is not just government large corporates are just as bad. IT stands out as the worst by far. We are also very good at developing innovation and respected globally for this yet we just fail to build global companies..

    Our story was given to the PASC and regrettably we were not alone. One of the conclusions by the Committee was the need for Government to become the intelligent customer. A good move – when it happens! But what does this mean? I see it is about knowledge although some see it is about skill sets and project management. Procurement often gets the blame but they are at the end of the decision cycle. So knowledge i.e. knowing the art of the possible must be widely distributed so all parties from decision makers to implementers. I circulated this around Government to stimulate thought.

    It is vital for UK plc to see successful exploitation of our home grown innovation as our generation are about to leave an appalling legacy to next generations. The old model is well broken so we need folk like you James to help get the message over we need to change….

    • jawgardner
      March 5, 2012 at 12:31 pm #


      I don’t know what you mean, since it was my people who conducted the evaluation, and the report they sent to me was comprehensive and well executed.

      You argue that the US is poor at seeing innovation exploited. That is actually a global, not just UK, problem. The issue has nothing at all do with policy and incentives and everything to do with the fact that innovation – real breakthrough innovation – usually does not make economic sense for early adopters.

      I have just published a whole book on this subject.

      But your comment about going to the PASC and elsewhere does not make it simpler or easier for the public sector to deal with you. It is also somewhat challenging to me that you’d suggest that everyone in government is an “unintelligent buyer” simply because they have not chosen to adopt your technology.

      Exploitation of home grown innovation is all very well, but first it must *be* exploitable. We can’t simply invent things and declaim “british made” and think that’s enough.

  3. March 5, 2012 at 7:40 pm #

    Well below is what actually happened I assume you saw this – it is all on record? It was a shocker …..I see that CMEC contract heading for £200m+ unbelievable!

    Actually I think US is better they have a buying culture and see self help as good business. We tend to be reliant on grants they have ready buyers. Where markets have large dominant companies as in IT it is very difficult for step change innovation. It is recognised as the “innovators dilemma” that is why being the intelligent customer becomes important as emphasised by many others and by the PASC Chairman – it is not just me! I have been involved in early stage companies for 35 years and without that experience I doubt we would have survived!

    By the time you had opportunity to see this new “Business Technology” it was well proven at UK Sport and BOA. Indeed last year UK Sport was well ahead in terms of efficiency see this report
    Rather destroys your argument that early adopters can’t get benefit? This is well proven technology but it is different and you just did not “get it”? All our early adopters were business driven IT was not involved – a plus and a minus…..

    Extract on report re DWP visit

    1. Meetings and dialogue with CTO. I did indeed meet James Gardiner for a brief preliminary discussion before a visit to DWP in Warrington. This took place on 27th May at the Adelphi in the informal meeting area. First I expressed my surprise at the meeting and in a follow up e-mail that he had not read the information I had sent to give some background to our technology. As a result it was little more than a personal introduction and an explanation by James about the role of his innovation team in Warrington. Subsequently I did in fact meet James at a conference where he acquitted himself well with his contribution from the platform. I did continue to have an e-mail exchange making suggestions on the questions that buyers should ask of the big vendors. I also picked up that in their research for a new benefit system they had identified an Australian built Oracle application so making the point that in the UK there was a successful “benefit system” running at UK Sport and hoped that if anyone visited Australia they should at least visit UK Sport? I received no responses to these quite important points. I would add at no point has there been any questions on our technology from the CTO

    2. Meeting with DWP senior innovation manager. On the 23rd June I with a colleague visited Warrington (an 8 hour round trip) to meet the innovation manager Duncan Mcgugan. Duncan had a colleague attend but it was quickly established he had not been briefed or read any of our submitted documents and as such made no contribution to the discussions. We decided that we would give a “hands on” demonstration how to build an application making the assumption that Duncan had read the documentation we made available before the meeting. At the start Duncan pointed out that he had the room (without any projection) for less than hour thereafter we would have to move. Outside the room was a “party” for DWP employees wishing to watch a World Cup England football match being shown in a large conference room on the same floor.
    We were no more than 10 minutes into showing how the Procession tool builds an application using the development environment when Duncan decided to change the agenda and focused on a problem he had currently on his desk. Simply it was how to handle the distribution of information from a central point to regional centres for appropriate action. Given this is just not a problem in Procession with a less than 5 minute build of part of a process we were surprised but showed how this would be handled after a detailed drawing on white board by Duncan. This is actually a very simple action in Procession but Duncan really struggled to understand. It became very clear that they were just not getting what Procession was as they seemed to focus more on understanding their own systems. By the time this distraction was over we had to move to a conference room without a desk so we had to stand. However it did have projection equipment so we were able demonstrate on a big screen an application working and showing the reference to the development environment how it was built. Meanwhile the football match was in full swing and it became clear our time was up and we left in time to listen to the second half in the car going back to Chesham! The actual time in productive understanding of our technology was less than 1.5 hours and we left quite dissatisfied that they really had not understood the nature of Procession technology.

    3. Information Request. Duncan did indeed in his first communication ask some questions none of which were actually related to the Procession technology more comparisons with others. Never the less we were prepared to discuss the answers at our meeting in the context of understanding the technology in that we were not a “component” we are a complete platform technology therefore they were asking the wrong questions other than a point about scalability. However we did highlight we are based upon Oracle and thus as scalable as Oracle. This issue of the questions never came up at any of our meetings or indeed any reminder since the meeting.

    4. Follow up on understanding Procession. It was clear from Duncan’s summary he had misrepresented our technology in his report and I pointed this out to him. Specifically is the question of “Agile”. All other suppliers rely on “agile” methodology in a traditional coding environment. One of Procession’s USPs is its ability to support constant change with no disruption and a development environment that starts and finishes with greater flexibility than any other product. The core design results in the core code never changing yet can deliver any business driven application using just one unified tool something that quite distinctly makes it different from all other vendors; something missed by Duncan. It is a fact not an opinion that from Duncan’s report he did not understand this new technology.

    5. Detailed analysis of Procession by independent expert. By chance one month after our visit to Warrington we had a 3 day visit by a senior researcher and Eoin Meehan from Trinity College Dublin who was representing interests in Ireland who are planning to take Procession into that territory. A very experienced IT person held in high esteem in Ireland who had carried our much research on the tools that address application build with a focus on people and process. In his early research on us he described as “…you have designed and made a BPM product “the right way”. Nobody else seems to have wanted to spend the money or time.” After his visit he prepared a more detailed view which I sent to James and Duncan on the 20th September. A few key extracts

    • 15 years ago The Procession Engine was state-of-the-art; today it remains state-of-the-art!
    • The Process Engine can now act as a hub, co-ordinating and orchestrating complex processes across disparate systems; even legacy ones.
    • it is data-driven, not procedure-driven. This means that there is no code generation, no compiling, no exporting, no translating of the process; the Engine inherently understands what a process is; tasks, flows, decisions and delivery of the working form to the right person at the right time – you simply give it the unique properties of your tasks, flows and the integrated user forms.
    • When you draw the process which addresses all required business logic, it’s ready to run. What you build as the prototype is actually Version 1! Nothing is thrown away; no dummy screens, no hard-coded demos. Build it, show it, change it then deploy it!

    These statements bear little resemblance to the superficial comments made by any review by DWP. Meehan has just this month been recruited by Dell and I am sure would be available to consult giving a truly independent view.

    6 Real cost savings not investigated? We raised the issue of the CMEC contract being placed with TCS for £50m following sight (under confidentiality) of the original specification including a 300 page PowerPoint? We believed it should have been no more than £5m adopting the Procession approach. Not one conversation has been initiated by DWP to investigate just how we justified such claims.

    • jawgardner
      March 5, 2012 at 8:50 pm #


      I am surprised you’d post these details of your personal recollection of meetings here. However, as they don’t constitute any part of the official record, I’m not going to delete them.

      However, it is not appropriate for me to comment on anything you’ve said beyond what I’ve already said: the report I was given was well executed.

      It is probably instructive, however, to leave your comments for the reference of the broader vendor community, as they exactly illustrate the points in my post.

  4. Duncan McGugan
    February 1, 2013 at 11:09 pm #

    I was googling something else and stumbled across this. It made me smile.

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  1. Weekly bits of interest – 6 February 2012 | Public Sector Innovation Toolkit - February 6, 2012

    […] Gardener, a former senior civil servant with the UK Government, writes about the difficulties of sourcing innovation from small suppliers. “Whilst I really enjoyed working for the UK Government, there is one lesson I’ve learned […]

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