26 Oct 2015

BT's Ian Dalton shares his insights on the role that SMEs can play in transforming public services

The judges of this year’s BT Infinity Lab competition, which first began in October 2013, were looking for innovations that used information and communication technologies to address problems in today’s society.  The breadth of entries gave a revealing glimpse into where innovators felt society needed help; amongst hundreds of entries they saw apps that aided language development, helped young people gain vital skills, improved the management of chronic medical conditions and reviewed disabled access to locations and venues.

We talked to one of the Infinity Lab competition judges, Ian Dalton, President of Global Government and Health for BT Global Services about the future for SMEs in the public sector. 

What were the drivers for BT and government in creating these awards?

BT has a proud history of being at the forefront of innovation and a key supplier to government.  We are really supportive of the government’s agenda on SMEs.  The SME community can bring amazing innovation to the digital transformation of government and public services.  It’s an objective for us, to be a leading partner of government in discovering the next generation of digital offerings that can make public services better, cheaper and more accessible. From the government’s perspective SME’s provide 99% of jobs and they’re an increasingly important part of the government supply chain.

What were you looking for in the entrants?

The entries were amazing.  We were overwhelmed by the quality of the entries.  We regularly run SME competitions across BT so I wasn’t surprised as we’ve seen some amazing ideas coming forward, and everyone knows the transformation of government to provide better services is going to heavily involve digital.  It was the level of innovation that surprised me; innovation that demonstrated completely new ways of delivery and meeting key needs in novel ways.  Like Babylon, for instance, providing different ways of contacting a doctor, and Educater, connecting families with schools. Technology provides the opportunity to create a digitally enabled workforce, which is the key to our future growth.

Why it is important to work with Start-up’s / SME’s through programmes like the Infinity lab?

BT really values innovation.  We are always on the lookout for new ways of delivering for our customers and SMEs can play a really key role.  The Infinity Lab offers SMEs an opportunity to showcase their best ideas and to get real support to develop.  This can be a big leg up for them.

Is it difficult, in your experience, for SMEs to work with the public sector?

I think typically public sector contracting has a very onerous set of commercial safeguards. These can be very challenging to SMEs even when they have a great idea or product.  BT is very used to working with 1,500 customers in the sector from the largest departments and agencies to individual hospitals and councils.  We know how to help a small SME with a great idea get to the market. 

How does winning competitions like this help SMEs?

The facility at Tech Hub and cash prizes can make a huge difference to an SME.  This award can really give SMEs the capacity to develop, build and scale their offering. We’re going through a digital revolution in which government can offer higher quality services at lower cost.  Every other industry that has made that transformation has used digital. SMEs can make a key contribution and this award is aimed at helping them deliver this.

Is there anything SMEs can offer the public sector that larger companies may not be able to?

Large companies can be incredibly innovative, and BT is one of the biggest spenders on R&D in the UK and is at the forefront of technology - so we feel that we have a lot to say in terms of innovation. But SMEs can play a massive role with new ideas for improving public services and new products to turn these into reality.  The innovation of SMEs, working alongside the innovation BT can provide, can make a big difference for government.

You’ve worked in the public sector for most of your career – how have you seen it change in terms of outsourcing, innovation or the use of SMES?

It’s changed hugely.  There is now a huge preparedness to look at new ways of delivering services.  Things that were typically run on paper now run digitally.  BT has been at the heart of that over the last ten years.  There have been massive improvements in efficiency and in effectiveness as a result.  But there is so much more opportunity! We increasingly live our lives through our smart phones. When we’re interacting with councils and government departments, people expect the same level of digitally enabled, high quality communications. Staff expect this too.

We’re anticipating that the Spending Review will continue to ask for better value and government is never going to create that efficiency at the expense of better services. This drive brings opportunities for both companies like BT and for SMEs.  The UK is well poised to be an international leader in digital public services. 


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