Can the UK government be like eBay?

Will Green is news editor of Supply Management
14 May 2014

14 May 2014 | Will Green

Will GreenTechnology has the power to topple governments. The ability it gives to citizens to share ideas, organise and take action means it played a vital part in the Arab Spring. The UK’s worst civil disobedience in decades in 2011 has been dubbed the “BlackBerry riots” because they were organised using a free messaging service.

Neil Logan, chief technology officer at Lockheed Martin, told The Public Sector Show 2014 in London this week technology also had the power to rejuvenate democracies.

“We’re undoubtedly entering a new era for digital technology,” he said. “The rule of the people can now be felt more quickly than before.

“Historically it was not practical for members of the public to vote quickly on matters of importance, but today we could.

“This new technology offers the opportunity to reinvent democracy and hopefully resolve some of the huge participation problem we have in the UK and across the developed world.”

Of course, the opportunity might be there, but is the public sector making the most of technology to commission and provide services? Are the buyers behind these services using the digital tools available to them?

“The application of digital technology is now the definitive source of competitive advantage in the world,” said Logan. “Embracing digital technology can enable the public sector to improve services while reducing costs.”

Stephen Kelly, chief operating officer in the Cabinet Office, told delegates Whitehall wanted to get to the same level of competence as the Amazons and Googles of this world in its efforts to digitise the work of government.

“Throughout this programme we are getting better public services at a fraction of the cost,” he said.

“We want to be as good as eBay, all those guys. There are massive levels of innovation going on; this is a really exciting time for government.”

The comparison with firms such as eBay is an interesting one. The hugely successful digital companies of today did not get where they are thinking too heavily about public service. They were driven by profit. It is only since they have gained such power and influence that their social responsibilities - or lack of in some cases - have become an issue.

But for government it is the other way round. Its responsibilities to the public good must by definition come first. It remains to be seen whether it is possible to successfully replicate private sector innovations, derived as they are from very different motives.

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