“The civil service doesn’t like uncertainty, it’s a machine that is designed around certainty”: Fujitsu’s Steven Cox on government machinery, procurement and the civil service

In our latest instalment of the Looking Across series, in which we ask those outside of Whitehall to give their perspectives on the civil service, Steven Cox talks to Sarah Aston about the Government Digital Service, SMEs and government procurement 

21 Sep 2015

In your experience, what are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of our civil service?
There are various factors that can be played as strengths and weaknesses. We have a lot of dedicated civil servants who do the ‘right thing’ by government and to deliver legislative outcomes with the mechanisms in place. Those are a huge strength, however when the ‘right thing’ changes, those mechanisms can be a blocker to making progress.

In your opinion, how could partnership working between government and businesses be improved?
There was a time when government sought to cut the costs of IT rather than using IT to cut costs, and I’d like to think we are seeing a shift away from that. We are now at the stage when a front to back digital transformation needs to occur in order for us to allow government to deliver more effectively and economically into the future. It’s a lot easier just to chase down suppliers around their prices than it is to realise that there are potentially more significant savings by doing things differently. And that needs both sides to work it through together and say what should be done differently.

At a recent event on the future of government you mentioned that many departments don’t know how to read the Government Digital Service (GDS). Why do you think this is? 
I think GDS was born at a time when it needed to be a real disrupter. At the beginning they inserted themselves quite assertively – and with good reason – into the decision-making process. Then the policies that they were putting into place, while the right things to do, were a long way away from the way in which departments had intended. 

Just looking at it from an individual perspective, you can imagine this could be a bit irksome at best. The civil service doesn’t like uncertainty, it’s a machine that is designed around certainty, and that uncertainty on input is probably quite unnerving. 

Moving forward, GDS are facing a decision point on whether they continue down the line of policy and guidance or go down the line of delivery. I have a sense that it could be very difficult for them as a separate body within government to be creating policy and being the delivery agent of shared services and government as a platform.

What can GDS do to change this?
What sort of things would I encourage? I would encourage a much greater reach out to private sector organisations of all sizes to really understand what those organisations could do to help, and where there are areas that we have concerns that perhaps GDS could assist with. I would really encourage an overt engagement with private sector to say: 'ok how can we work on this challenge together?'  because I genuinely believe that working together is going to lead to a better outcome.

What has been the most inspiring government project you’ve been involved in?
We have seen some really impressive work at HMRC in terms of their approach to next generation cloud services and to grasping what the future of big data and analytics looks like. They are early in the cycle in terms of delivering the returns from that, but in terms of the thinking behind it under the leadership of CDIO Mark Dearnley and Lin Homer, I think it is really impressive. They have put themselves out there in many ways at a time when many other people are choosing not to. 

Earlier this year Fujitsu announced they were renewing efforts to enhance their relationship with SMEs to deliver public services. Why is it important to diversify procurement contracts? 
Diversifying the supply chain is important for a number of different reasons. There is no one company, person, entity that has the monopoly on good ideas or innovative approaches, so in terms of making government more effective and efficient we need to get as much input as we possibly can. 

It is often difficult for government and departments to engage with SMEs because the scale of engagement is completely different. The civil service operates as a huge machine with its own timescales, processes and approaches so it’s not built to deal with a guy with a great idea and three or four people working for him. So we need to find a way of bridging that in a way that is sustainable for the SMEs and for government. 

We did some research, Collaboration Nation, which looked specifically at how SMEs and large organisations want to engage. The majority of the SMEs saw the benefit of working with large organisations, and also recognised the difficulties they have in dealing with government departments. So we can be the catalyst, we can enable and harness that. 

Steven Cox is the head of public sector at Fujitsu UK and Ireland.

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