The public sector’s relationships with its commercial suppliers are now facing as much scrutiny as they ever have.
Close attention being paid to the role of industry in supporting public-service delivery is, of course, nothing new; the change of government in 2010 brought with it a sharp focus on procurement practices, and a drive to dismantle what former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude memorably termed the “oligopoly” of major providers.
In its stead has come a range of new routes to market, such as the G-Cloud framework and the Digital Marketplace buying platform, and a drive to remove barriers to entry for smaller firms.
What has not changed is the level of interest paid to government’s supplier engagements.
If we take on board that we fundamentally changed the way we worked in a short period of time, we can continue that and repeat that going forward
Greater transparency has enabled onlookers to keep much better track of what is being spent and with whom, and to hold the relevant parties to account if value-for-money is not delivered, or targets are missed. The vast sums that have been spent over the last year to support various coronavirus-response programmes has only intensified this watchfulness.
As a supplier of technology and services, SAP Concur tries to remain cognisant that its public sector customers have some important inherent differences to those in the commercial sphere and, according to local authority sales lead David Hipwell, the relationships should thus be approached differently.
“Sometimes as a commercial organisation, we have to step back and we have to be mindful about a public sector organisation’s purpose,” he tells PublicTechnology. “Because, unlike a commercial organisation – which is there to make money – a public sector organisation is there to deliver services to citizens. If you want to work within the public sector, you have to be understanding of that. Ultimately, they are responsible to citizens and answerable to them.”
He adds: “It is important to remember that anything you do with that organisation should not just be about getting in the door and getting them to buy something. You have to change the mindset, and realise that this is actually a longer-term strategic partnership. It is about how can we help an authority deliver the front-line services in an efficient way? How can we improve the overall operations? How can we help them save money? How can we free up time for the people delivering those front-line services? What can we do that is aligned to them and their needs?”
The need to be aware of and responsive to an organisation’s objectives – especially those that cannot be measured in financial success – sometimes means willingly taking a back seat to more pressing concerns. Something ably illustrated by the early weeks of the pandemic, Hipwell says.
“There was a re-evaluation taking place as to what the priorities were,” he adds. “And we had to understand that making some amendments to their travel and expenses probably was not a priority for them, because they had a much more basic need to solve at that time: how do we get people working from home, while continuing to deliver front-line services?”
Of course, use of technology and digital tools has been central to the public sector’s coronavirus response, both in enabling its own workforce, and maintaining citizen services.
Some councils in SAP Concur’s customer base have told Hipwell that they “did things in three weeks that previously would have taken three years to do”.
This experience may have brought with it greater appreciation for the potential of digital and data in the future, and perhaps an increased appetite for technology adoption.
Even so, engagements with public sector customers need to focus on a lot more than just functionality.
The SAP Concur local government lead cites the example of social workers, who may not necessarily be interested in the fact that an expense tool automatically calculates mileage or allows users to submit photos of receipts.
“But if we can provide them with a full range of processes that mean they don’t need to come into offices… then we can free up time that they can dedicate to providing care for people. We are then supporting a digital strategy, enabling the new way of working – and we are giving time to social workers, who have been stretched beyond all recognition this last year, particularly in adult social care.”
It should not just be about getting in the door and getting them to buy something. You have to change the mindset, and realise that this is actually a longer-term strategic partnership.
Going forward, Hipwell believes the extent to which organisations will maintain remote working practices will vary from one organisation to the next, and will be dependent on individuals’ preferences. But he encourages local authorities to recognise the scale of their achievement in making such a transformative change to the way they operate – almost overnight.
“Don’t throw away all that work achieving the new normal,” he adds. “We have seen that we can make major changes quite quickly. And if we take on board that we fundamentally changed the way we worked in a short period of time, we can continue that and repeat that going forward.”
Hipwell expects that, as and when organisations move past pandemic mode, the increased level of remote working and the spotlight that the last year has shone on technology will mean that digital tools will resonate more deeply with councils that – after years of major budget cuts – are now looking for “marginal gains”.
But even if there is a renewed interest in tech and transformation beyond simply what is most urgently needed, suppliers must always remain attuned to the objectives of the public sector.
“There has to be much more of a strategic partnership, rather than how can we provide a piece of technology and move on.”
PublicTechnology and SAP Concur recently hosted a webinar on local government transformation, in which sector leaders discussed the impact of coronavirus on digital initiatives, and how the events of the past year might influence ways of working into the future. Click here to read a write-up of the event, and to register for free on-demand access to the full discussion.