Buying better tech in government

The technology the Government buys and uses affects all of us. Much of our attention at the moment is on the development and deployment of a ‘contact tracing’ app to control the pandemic, as well as the increased use of facial recognition technology on our high streets. But there are also items like Cloud storage and computer hardware. The Government spent over £2bn on tech last year and the public sector is being transformed in the quest to do things quicker and more cheaply.

The technology the Government uses should be responsible – it must serve the public interest and uphold, not undermine, a fair, inclusive and sustainable democratic society. 

However from speaking with experts in procurement we have found that the technology procurement process at present does not value responsible technology. Buying better technology in government outlines our practical recommendations for adapting the procurement process so as to ensure that the tech that’s involved in the delivery of public services is inclusive and beneficial to everyone. The changes include:

  1. Considering the consequences of technology
  2. Incentivising responsible innovation
  3. Measuring the impacts of technologies

Considering the consequences of technology

We know that tech can create a host of intended and unintended consequences. Considering these at the very beginning of the procurement process means that they can be more easily mitigated. 

Within government, business cases are drawn up to justify a decision to buy the tech in the first place. These often emphasise the potential to reduce costs – of doing more with less. The potential societal impacts, such as the exclusion of certain groups of people from services, biased decision making, or a lack of privacy are often not given due weight. 

It’s essential that deeper consideration is given to these impacts before such technologies are deployed. Impact assessments, such as Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs), to help consider the full range of impacts when deploying a technology do exist. However we were told the quality of assessments and their use across the duration of the procurement process is very variable. 

Public officials need accessible and quick tools to help them consider potential issues and how to mitigate them.

Doteveryone has developed Consequence Scanning, a practice that helps organisations anticipate and mitigate the potential consequences of their product or service on people, communities and the planet.

We have used Consequence Scanning with a variety of businesses as well as some government teams. It is a lightweight process that could be adapted for use in a government context and could be rolled out across all procurement decisions. 

We recommend the Government Digital Service (GDS) builds on the Consequence Scanning resource to create a lightweight approach to considering the impacts of government in technology procurement that can be used across all parts of the public sector.  

Incentivising responsible innovation

Procurement helps drive competition between suppliers and so the buyer gets the best deal possible. But the best deal should also be a responsible deal. 

It is possible to incentivise responsibility in the government procurement of tech. At present it does not. 

A review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life found that, “private companies developing AI software often had the capability to make their products and services more explainable, but that they were rarely asked to do so by those procuring technology for the public sector. The Committee was told that requirements for technical transparency are not usually included in procurement tenders and contracts.”

Currently when the Government buys tech, it is the Public Service (Social Value) Act 2012, which requires the Government to account for (updated from ‘consider’ in 2018) social, economic and environmental outcomes when procuring goods and services. The Government consulted on how it should account for social value last year and proposed a minimum 10% weighting for evaluating social value in the bids. It’s then down to procurement teams in government to determine how they account for social value. 

For each procurement they can choose what types of outcomes they favour and how much they should be weighted in the evaluation of bids. The broad sentiment was that procurement teams were not clear on how to account for social value within technology services. 

Social value in a tech context should mean responsible tech. Tech that serves the public interest and upholds, not undermines a fair, inclusive and sustainable democratic society. From our research we have identified three areas that could be specified within the social value criteria to make them applicable to a tech context:

  1. Transparency in automated decision making incentivising suppliers to make automated decision making systems accountable and transparent.
  2. Valuing and controlling data – a better valuation of public data would enable more cost effective procurement. And stipulating a need for a fairer distribution of the profit gained from the data could lead to more novel and equitable arrangements. 
  3. Exclusion of servicesincentivising the minimisation of impact on excluded groups using KPIs could lead to more inclusive solutions.

We recommend the Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport sets a minimum 10% weighting for evaluating ‘responsible technology’ in all technology procurements. This would mean amending the social value evaluation model proposed in last year’s consultation and including relevant responsible technology policy outcomes and metrics. This should be accompanied by clear guidance, and suggested key performance indicators.

Measuring the impact of technologies

The procurement of tech will only improve if we learn from past mistakes. However a fear that greater use of appraisals and scrutiny would lead to discovering areas that could have been done better or need improvement is restricting the sector’s ability to learn from past mistakes.

“You’re far less likely to report failure than success…I think that generally comes down to the reluctance to admit a mistake.” – Government procurement official

Collecting the right data and making it usable is also essential. We found unanimous agreement that the quality of published data was poor – not clean, complete or usable. And many government authorities fail to keep and maintain records of the services they purchase, although they are legally obliged to do.

This impedes the investigation into relatively basic concerns about the quality of suppliers or services. 

Better data could demystify and open up the procurement process to new entrants and increase competition. Greater scrutiny could incentivise better decision-making within government.

And better data means data not just at the point where the contract is awarded but the period after this. This is arguably what matters the most, it’s when the technology can directly affect the public. 

But wider considerations, such as the full impact government technology is having on wider society are not being taken into account. These might be harder to measure and answer, but are fundamental to assessing the true impact.

The Government should go further in what it collects and shares with the public. It should measure what matters, and in the context of government services, the impact on society should matter. 

Failing to consider these factors the Government will fail to learn and improve or build public trust in its procurement of technology.

We recommend the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport undertakes and publishes impact evaluations on government procured technology. 

Making responsible technology the new normal

Doteveryone wants to see a world where responsible technology is the new normal. We have seen many examples of government technology that is not responsible. Technology that does not support a fair, inclusive and sustainable democratic society.

In a world where our lives will be increasingly mediated by technology, it has never been more urgent that the Government is proactive in procuring the type of technology it wants in society.

And with the UK Government adapting the procurement process so that it considers, incentivises and understands responsible technology, it will set the standard for the wider technology sector to follow and ultimately help to create a market for more responsible tech products and services. 

Public procurement is pretty much the best opportunity the Government has to demonstrate what a good British business looks like, and this purchasing power should not be under-estimated” – Rose Lasko-Skinner, Demos

Read Buying better technology in government for more on how the UK Government can procure more responsible technology.