A Cabinet Office minister says small tech companies can play a key role in avoiding a repeat of the aftermath of the Carillion collapse.

The government came under fire earlier this year after it emerged that it had awarded billions of pounds of contracts to Carillion despite the construction giant having issued profit warnings.

However it has committed to awarding more contracts to small- and medium-sized firms to meet their target of spending one in three pounds with SMEs by 2022.

Oliver Dowden, who has responsibility for SMEs and also oversees the Government Digital Service, told BusinessCloud that awarding more contracts to SMEs was a “long-term priority” for the government long before Carillion hit the headlines.

“The strength of SMEs is that they are small and adaptable, they can be innovative and they also ensure that we have a diverse supply chain. We’re not reliant on too small a number of suppliers, we have a wide range,” he said.

“This was a long-term priority for the government way before Carillion [happened]. But one of the lessons we can learn from Carillion is to have a more diverse, innovative and resilient supply chain.”

Oliver Dowden and Jonathan Symcox Dowden, left, with Jonathan Symcox during a roundtable at Informed Solutions

Dowden believes that small tech companies have an exceptional ability to deliver innovation into the heart of government.

“I think this country has a real opportunity to be at the forefront of tech and in many ways it is,” he said. “The tech companies we have handling prestige government contracts have genuine innovation and bring something new to the table.

“The fact that they’re smaller and more agile means that they’re often at the forefront of technology so they’re attractive to government from that perspective. We’ve already digitised an awful lot of government servcies and by many measures we’re one of the most digitally advanced governments in the world.”

Dowden, the MP for Hertsmere in Hertfordshire and a former advisor to David Cameron, said it is not enough to merely provide a front-end allowing people to interact with government.

“I’m pushing to ensure we have full end-to-end digitisation so that not only do you have a digital interface with government, but you have a government that is fully digital on the other side of the interface,” he explained.

Last year the government announced the creation of a dedicated ‘GovTech Catalyst’ team which would drive the use of technology in solving public sector challenges such as reducing traffic jams, freeing up teachers’ time and improving the experience of patients visiting their GP.

Dowden said the first wave of investment into successful tech firms from the £20 million fund will be announced shortly while he is also personally writing to major government suppliers asking them to make greater use of SMEs in delivering government contracts.

“This is beneficial to government as a whole but the suppliers themselves will also see advantages with the nimbleness of having small businesses as sub contractors.”

Another objective is to have government teams actively working alongside start-ups, promoting innovation and collaboration, according to Dowden.

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