Public IT buying 'does not understand social impacts'

2 June 2020

Government technology procurement focuses too much on price and fails to understand the long-term societal impacts of new IT systems, according to a report.

The report, Buying better technology in government by think tank Doteveryone, said the UK civil service “lacks the capability and capacity to fully understand” the impact of new IT systems and society.

The think tank was set up by Martha Lane Fox, the digital entrepreneur who helped set up the Government Digital Service (GDS) in 2011 and who wrote the report.

New IT systems will create “societal impacts such as excluding certain groups of people from services, biased decision making, or a lack of privacy” the report said, but “these implications are often not given due weight”.

This was particularly true in a technology context, when many impacts cannot be measured in monetary terms.

Instead civil service organisations should improve their ability to understand the implications of procurement choices in digital systems’ design and development, and create processes to assess their impact following delivery.

“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,” said the report.

“Although the procurement of technology, and digitisation of public services, brings many potential benefits, too often its potential negative consequences are overlooked. The process for buying technology does not currently promote responsible technology.” 

GDS – the unit responsible for leading digital transformation across government – should learn to carry out what the report calls “consequence scanning” in all government technology procurement. 

Consequence scanning is a way of considering and mitigating the potential negative impacts of products and services on people and society, the report said.

The report also recommends that departments measure the impact of new systems after they are introduced and that civil servants should be answer questions such as “did the procurement deliver the outcomes originally anticipated?”

It should also look at whether unanticipated outcomes occurred.

Evaluations into the impact of government-procuring technology should be carried out by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

“The impact evaluations should understand the full range of economic, social and environmental effects of the service,” said the report.

“There should be an interim review done after a year, so that insights can be learnt and fed back into improving the procurement process.” 

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