The small business revolution
The UK government is increasingly turning to smaller companies to run its services. We spoke to Chris Hayman, Amazon Web Services’ Country GM, UK&I Public Sector, to get an insight into the country’s current public sector landscape.
Since the UK government introduced G-Cloud in 2012, the public sector has changed dramatically. A standardised set of frameworks meant that the cost of bidding and procuring was reduced, allowing small businesses and startups to become involved without bankrupting themselves. Where once government services were the domain of big organisations, now startups rule the land, with 71% of all contracts procured through G-Cloud won by small companies.
Amazon Web Services has been directly available through G-Cloud since 2013, and has spent the last seven years offering its platforms to many of the small companies, allowing them to utilise the AWS technology stack. Chris Hayman, AWS’s Country GM, UK&I Public Sector, walks us through the public sector landscape of startups, healthcare, government and what problems need solving next.
ON… SMALL BUSINESSES AND STARTUPS
“While we knew there was a big, beneficial impact of cloud on small businesses, there wasn’t really any data to back it up. So a while ago we engaged Public First to do a proper Impact Report, so we could know precisely the use and benefits created by our services across the UK.
It’s great for me as someone who works in the public sector, because I have all these anecdotes and I hear these stories about how beneficial moving to cloud is, but to have some of that validated has been fantastic – and that was the idea behind the research.
There are a few takeaways for me. I’m particularly interested in how there’s an opportunity for small businesses selling into government. So we’ve worked with small businesses like Mobilise, which is based in Swansea – it is providing contact centres for the DVLA, same with Arcus Global which is providing contact centres for NHS Business Services Authority, and we work with Kainos on the MOT service as well. So through the government’s G-Cloud, over 150 businesses have used AWS, which is worth over £1.3 billion to the government. It’s great to see that sort of data supporting some of these anecdotes that we’re hearing in the field.
It is massively important that startups and small businesses work alongside and provide services for the government. The government has only really been served, certainly in recent history, by a small number of very large providers. So having small providers who can create capability on top of cloud, who can provide consulting capability, this is massive for us, the government and the whole ecosystem.
The number of startups and small businesses involved in government has increased dramatically. There’s always room for grabbing a space; there’s always an opportunity. There’s also been a change in the geographical prevalence of some of these startups, with cloud allowing a more diverse geographical supply chain. There’s still a lot of work to do, though. For example, if we could increase the cloud prevalence in the north-east to match London it would boost local productivity and wages by 2.6% or around 1.4 billion per year. So there’s an opportunity there as well. Overall we have over 100,000 customers in the UK, which is a great start, but it’s still early days.”
ON… WHAT NEW PROBLEMS CLOUD COMPUTING IS HELPING TO SOLVE
“The changes around contact centres has been a big topic in recent months. Not least because of the pandemic, but more broadly I think customers are trying to figure out how best to offer that sort of experience. It hasn’t always been great. It hasn’t always been perfect.
A great example is NHS Business Services Authority. It is using chatbots to answer some of those really mundane but important questions, like ‘when is my prepayment NHS prescription coming through?’ Getting a computer to answer that is pretty straight forward. That frees up some of its contact centre staff to answer harder problems, and the harder questions. Clearly, if I need human assistance, then I want the machine to be able to recognise that I’ve got a more complex query and I’d rather speak to the human, but that sort of chatbot convenience can be really helpful.
The questions around how we look at sentiment analysis and how we better understand what citizens are asking for have really come to the fore through the pandemic. We’ve been talking about AI and machine learning for a long time, right, and how to apply it in the public sector has been a real hot topic for a lot of our customers. A good example of that is our work with Transport For London [TFL]. We worked with TFL a while ago on developing APIs. It made a very conscious decision to outsource the development of its apps. So, for example, Citymapper uses the TFL API. So we went from being a cloud computing supplier, to helping it with its website.
We’ve helped TFL understand its data, and how to develop insights from its data. So it’s now got an API understanding cyclist injuries and fatalities, which is sadly a big topic in London. The data gives it insights into helping it, for example, stop lorries from turning into the path of cyclists – it’s using machine learning statistical prediction to do that. What are the road conditions going to be like on a certain date? What has the council got planned on the roads on that date? All of that can lead to gleaning important insights.”
“We’re seeing tremendous demands in healthcare. When we speak to customers, they are absolutely exploring cloud. I think NHS Business Service Authority, which I mentioned before, is a really good example of that, and we’ve helped it with cloud contact centres. We’ve also helped other NHS organisations, both from a data perspective, but also from a capability perspective.
It’s really encouraging to see such a demand for cloud technologies in healthcare – and not just from technology suppliers. You’re seeing it from NHS trusts too. And the ball was already rolling before the pandemic hit.
As well as the work we’ve been doing with contact centres, we’re also involved in the clinical side. We partnered with Imperial College London to help it create a global knowledge platform which pools together global data on COVID-19 from over half a million sources, and then extract the most important insights in real time. This is a massive area where we can help, using natural language processing to help people navigate that volume of data.
We’re also working with a small company called SkinVision. You can take a picture of your mole on your skin via an app you download and machine learning on the image will help tell you whether you need to go and seek professional help or not. So it’s a very broad field.”
“Government departments are increasingly embracing cloud. I think there are a number of reasons for that. Not least, some of the policy work that government has been doing to improve the mix of small businesses, and using G-Cloud as a procurement vehicle to make it easier for government organisations to buy cloud. Simply recognising the benefits of being able to do these things has certainly been an enabler.
There are a number of examples where some of the larger departments are looking to use cloud in significant ways to either improve systems of engagement or to help some of their back office functions. And with the local government side, where citizen engagement is really important, we’re working with them on that as well.
The UK public sector embraced cloud early on and that’s been tremendous for it. And the demand has never been greater. I think there are areas, certainly in government, where they’re really trailblazing with the adoption of cloud and doing some really impactful things. So we’ll continue to support our customers in this space and listen to the types of things that they’re looking for.”
Letting go of the heavy lifting
Digital technology solutions company Kainos partnered with AWS to move the national MOT system to the cloud, reducing costs and improving the service for testers. We spoke to its CTO Rory Hanratty about working alongside AWS.
Why move to the cloud?
You simply wouldn’t be able to be agile if you weren’t using cloud platforms like AWS. To paint a little bit of a picture of how things have changed over the last four or five years, if you had to pick up a new digital services delivery seven or eight years ago, you would have been having a debate about whether or not you could use cloud. Back then you’d be having that discussion and you’d have stuff thrown at you like ‘it’s not secure’, or ‘how can you trust it?’ or ‘we can’t see it’.
You had all of these kinds of discussions where people were used to spending lots of capital expenditure to build a big data centre – ‘We can see it and we can touch it. And therefore we know what we have right now!’. These days, that conversation doesn’t even happen. We have moved on significantly in the last number of years to a place where it’s not a debate whether or not we should use cloud: it is the default. It’s basically part of the service standard for delivering services to government. That wouldn’t have happened without the level of investment and evolution that you see from these big cloud providers like Amazon.
They bring a level of expertise that you simply don’t have. For example, if you’re in the passport office, you are in the business of providing people with passports, you’re not in the business of running data centres. It’s not your core capability or skillset of what you really should be focusing on. But for AWS, that’s its core business – it’s running data centres and managing security to a level that’s beyond what you would get if you were doing it yourself.
It’s that kind of continual pace of taking away heavy lifting from you, which means that your technology teams and your user researchers and service designers can focus on the user outcome. The headache of running your own infrastructure and all that kind of stuff is taken away. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to understand it, but that heavy lifting is taken away from you.
Has the public sector become less resistant to moving to cloud?
I think it has changed. In terms of focusing on user outcomes, proper service design, and actually doing user research and understanding how the services work, the public sector ran way ahead very, very quickly. They had to because there was a real imperative to make sure that citizens out there who were trying to renew passports or get their car MOT’d or apply for universal credit were able to do that easily.
So some parts of the public sector are ahead of the private sector. There’s a little bit more resistance in some pockets of the commercial sector where they’re still protective over their data centre. ‘We spent millions on this so why would we just switch it off?’ I think there’s a big wave of people who are kind of realising that’s actually an untenable position going forward. We need to switch these things off.