Covid has shown us how important digitisation is to Building Back Better

Matthew Elliott, Senior Political Adviser

Boris Johnson’s first telephone call with Joe Biden in the White House reportedly included some joshing over which of them had first used the phrase ‘Build Back Better’. Whether it was the Prime Minister or the President, it is set to be the leitmotif of the global post-Covid recovery. Economies have been devastated, individuals have made enormous sacrifices, so it is right that every effort is made to improve people’s lives after the pandemic.

The Government recently set up a ‘Build Back Better Council’ to assist them with this task. Unlike previous No10 business councils, and fittingly for the urgency of the task, this council is both time limited to one year, and action orientated to the post-Covid recovery.

There have been precious few positives about the past year, but the lockdowns have forced us all to hone our technological skills and embrace digital transformation. From families using Zoom to keep in touch with loved ones, to offices migrating their systems from filing cabinets to cloud storage, we have seen a decade’s worth of progress take place in a year.

This has applied in the public sector as much as it has in the private and family setting. The UK is actually one of the leading implementers of ‘electronic government’ according to the United Nations E-Government Surveys. Over the past five years, UK government spending on technology has risen consistently – up 10 per cent over the past year alone to £1.93billion. This uptick is across all departments, with the Home Office, Ministry of Justice and NHS Digital being notable leaders.

At this point, some may argue that this money over the last year would have been better directed to the front line of fighting Covid. But the pandemic actually spurred most countries to accelerate their digital government strategies, as part of this war effort. In the UK, for example, digital specialists and data analysis resources have been key to the success of such initiatives as the NHS Home Testing Service.

One such company is Kainos Software, who have been one of the leading suppliers of digital services to the UK Government as measured by cumulative spend since 2014. Throughout the Covid crisis, Kainos has used their data collection and analysis skills to deliver multiple projects, including more accurately allocating NHS beds, oxygen and PPE to the hospitals that need them most, more rapidly reporting the condition of particular sectors of the economy to enable agile policy-making such as the furlough scheme, and more precisely forecasting the likely development of Covid in local areas through the NHS Early Warning System.

As a Belfast-founded, UK-headquartered, £1.5billion market capitalised business, Kainos is the archetypal UK SME – one of the “engine rooms of our economy”, as the Prime Minister would describe it. This company is, of course, just one example of many UK SMEs who have been able to rapidly supply digital transformation services in aid of the pandemic response. Another example is MadeTech, who took just 48 hours to develop an open-source virtual visit service to connect hospital patients with loved ones during the peak of the epidemic.

The awarding of public sector contracts to UK SMEs is an important focus for our post-Covid recovery, enabling small to medium sized enterprises to build back from a turbulent year, and Government to utilise their much-needed services and valuable expertise.

With the clock ticking down on the Brexit negotiations, and the mutant strain of Covid emerging pre-Christmas, few noticed the launch of the Green Paper on Transforming Public Procurement in mid-December. The report included many strong proposals for improving the procurement system – which I know from my time as CEO of the TaxPayers’ Alliance is overdue for radical reform – but its treatment of SMEs was the proposal that deserves special mention.

The proposed new system – which is open for consultation until the 10th March – aims to make it simpler for small businesses and voluntary, charitable and social enterprises to compete for public contracts. It will establish a single platform for supplier registration, and a new Government purchasing system to cover all types of procurement, not just commonly used goods and services. The aim of these changes is to ensure that it is quicker, simpler and cheaper to participate, thereby encouraging more SMEs to bid for and win public contracts. 

Technology is one area where good progress has already been made. The latest figures show that almost half the Government’s digital transformation spend went directly to SMEs, for example. And it is excellent that companies like Kainos (who have had three earnings upgrades throughout their 2020/21 financial year) will face fewer hurdles in the months and years to come.

With the Covid crisis reaching its end, the Government is right to turn its focus to Building Back Better. There are many important aspects to this, including levelling-up and the net-zero agenda, but digital transformation and using public procurement to encourage home-grown SMEs are two aspects we should continue to keep sight of as we begin to put 2020 behind us.