Business leaders gained an intriguing insight into how the coalition government is becoming more transparent and using digital communications technology to inform and encourage public debate about important topics.
Nick Jones, Head of Digital, Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office revealed the government’s increasing use of social media and modern communication techniques when he introduced ‘a new young colleague called Stefffy L’ – the all-encompassing acronym for the many online digital channels used by his civil service team.
Stefffy L – Site (website: number10.gov.uk), Twitter, Email, Facebook, Foursquare, Flickr, YouTube and Linked-In, etc . . . – was enabling faster and wider communication in general, while also generating interaction within influential online user-groups, Jones said.
Following the old maxim that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’, greater transparency of public information and government policy is being provided by ‘Stefffy L’ online activities.
For instance, David Cameron had Twitter, Linked-In and Facebook sites which often reported on his views and visits – recently to Waitrose in Bracknell and financial software provider Intuit in Maidenhead.
Jones exampled how social media had been used to seed public discussion and media interest on potential changes to adoption, and on International Women’s Day concerns about stalking. Using Twitter the No.10 team had highlighted a social attitudes survey which was picked up by BBC TV’s Panorama.
And, digital communications are being used to promote the Queen’s Jubilee events throughout the country, the Olympics, and the ‘Britain is GREAT’ advertising campaign supporting the national economy overall.
Social media was developing fast, added Jones. “This stuff has incredible potential to change the world in a very positive way.”
Linked-In had provided a quality business-focused response to the issue of red-tape. Twitter’s 140-character limit, Jones noted, was a valuable lesson in not overcomplicating the message. And Bambuser, a new social medium enabling the uploading of live mobile phone footage, was currently informing the world about unrest in Syria.
The government’s CloudStore, launched in February, is acting as an online marketplace through which public sector bodies can purchase commodity cloud services from over 250 different suppliers. The site achieved 250,000 visits and its first procurement transaction within a fortnight.
Last year www.data.gov.uk was set up as a single point of access to nearly 6,000 government data sets. It aim is to open up government. Some businesses are now using this fresh access to information to develop opportunities, said Jones.
A new website – Gov.UK – is currently being developed to replace www.direct.gov.uk and provide an improved, more open and user-friendly service. But, social media required careful handling, Jones added. “If you engage in social media, you don’t control the conversation and have to be prepared to take some blows as well.”
During his Southern Tech 100 presentation Nick Jones encouraged the business community to advise on ways to reduce government bureaucracy. In a Q&A session afterwards he was made fully aware of the red-tape pain for technology SMEs seeking public sector work.
While the CloudStore concept was applaudable, said one attendee, the procurement process had been made too complex and detailed. “The bureaucrats have got hold of it and in some cases we’ve ended up with worse than we had.”
Another suggested it was “a great idea, with poor implementation.” The mentality of the new documentation was “so wrong as to how the private sector operates.”
“The guidelines from the top translated into the monster that arrived on our desks are disgraceful.”
Others commented that tender documentation contained “nonsense questions”, favoured big vendors, and “made it virtually impossible for SMEs to succeed.”
Civil service mindset on risk was also a concern. Picking the well-known provider might be a safe choice, but possibly not the best option. “CloudStore is a good starting point but you have stop people thinking about the risks of procurement. By using an SME you might be increasing your risk, but you might also get a better result at a better price,” commented a Surrey entrepreneur.
“If you are giving the contract to someone who is going to manage the risk of failure for you, that is not being an intelligent client. The reason is that there is no risk. There is always someone in our IT industry, waiting in the wings to take over,” added another speaker.
It was also suggested the government should scrap the 3-5 year contract tender process, which “locks people out” of the fast-changing technology market. “We have a live industry, and if we are not attuned to our competition today, we should fail. Long-term tenders are not natural in IT.”
* On March 9, Frances Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, announced further measures to support SMEs in winning government business.
Nick Jones was speaking at a Southern Tech 100 dinner hosted by The Business Magazine at The Forbury Hotel in Reading and sponsored by Barclays Corporate, accountants and business advisers James Cowper and law firm Pitmans.