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Talking digital innovation in Whitehall

Thu 26 Jan 2012

On Wednesday I was kindly invited to attend a Product Surgery at Whitehall. Initially instigated by David Cameron and the Minister for the Cabinet Office, these informal consultations are to allow senior government staff the opportunity to talk to industry people about forthcoming projects prior to procurement.

Without going into too much detail, the session I attended focussed on Education data and its online access by public and professionals alike.

The surgery is very strict in timekeeping with 10 minutes to ‘pitch’ and 10 minutes of Q&A questions. I used my time to try to enhance the vision. I tried to emphasise the need for any large ICT solution not to be pre-prescribed and devoid of exploration, ideas and imagination.

This approach was as a result of being involved in many Government tenders where the ITT (Invitation to Tender) already defines the solution or concentrates on areas which I consider should only be defined once the scope is known. The existing approach maybe ideal to get comparative costs from suppliers, but it doesn’t allow boundaries to broaden or innovation to flourish.

The project I discussed at the surgery is extremely exciting. The potential to benefit the education sector is huge. But to realise the opportunity you need to understand the needs and expectations of the people who will ultimately use the solution. You also need to understand how they want to use it, benchmark other applications and think of the roadmap.

For this project expectations should be high, as it is obvious that the age group of teachers and parents is increasingly inline with the expert/web savvy users of the internet.

With audience groups defined and willing to contribute you can discover not just what they feel, but also use face-to-face sessions to brainstorm and innovate for the future. Using prototypes, sketches, proof of concepts and good old drawings, ideas can come to life and stakeholders can start to recognise the impact and value that can be generated. Add benefits and business case data to support this and the design phase becomes very compelling.

The future of digital is changing. People’s expectations of accessing data are becoming much more demanding. Ownership of 6 connected devices (Desktop, laptop, tablet, mobile, games console and TV) is becoming increasingly commonplace. New sites will need to cater for these varieties of interaction methods. The advancement of Responsive Web Design will be key. Sites built over the next few years will need to realise this.

So my message to Government was that they need to provide the mechanism for ideas to be explored by designers in an environment that is not prohibitive. We can’t do this work during a tender submission and we can’t quote for the unknown as we become uncompetitive. Hence innovation is left at the back door. If you ask for X you get X but what if Y was better (or X.5)!

Creating a distinct design and research phase will allow the opportunities to be explored and then when new business cases are built you can confidently set budgets and define technology, methodology etc.

With projects as large and important as tendered by DfE, I’d imagine that you’d even be able to invite agencies to work together at this critical stage for the good of the nation.

It is great that I was given the opportunity to attend. There seems a real shift in Government to change thinking and improve interaction between the wider business community (SMEs) and central departments.

The UK excels at creative services. For the government to get the same level of innovation and design as the private sector has to be a target.

Find out more about responsive design at Smashing Magazine.

Andrew Henning

Andrew Henning

CEO & Founder

I’m CEO and founder of Redweb. I started the agency back in 1997 when the internet was a shiny new magical thing and everybody was throwing money at anything with a .com name. However being out of London I skipped some of the craziness and concentrated on building the business in a sound and profitable way. A factor which I believe, has allowed us to thrive over the last 12 years.

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