Big Data In UK Central Government – Ask Spend Matters

Our colleagues over at Spend Matters US have started a new series that invites readers to send in their procurement questions. Then, the combined intellectual might of the analyst team will give their considered answers.

The first question was about “tail spend” and was answered here – well worth reading. The next one received came from a UK source and asked “Is there any evidence that UK central government commercial departments are using big data to transform commercial activities?” 

Great question – and understandably, my US colleagues passed this to me and asked if we could answer it from this side of the Atlantic. Yes we can, I told them, we can respond to that very easily.  The answer is “no”!

To be precise, we cannot say with certainty that there are no big data initiatives going on in UK central government procurement – but we have not heard or seen evidence of anything relevant. Crown Commercial Service has ambitious plans for their “Crown Marketplace” but this is not really a big data initiative if we understand correctly. CCS has been working on this for at least two years with some limited progress; an indicator that things tend to move slowly in government technology.

There is some central spend analysis in place, but we haven’t seen any particularly advanced big data approaches there either. One of the use cases that IBM has been talking about for at least two years is with the US Department of Defence, using technology to help practitioners make sense of the huge amount of regulatory and administrative requirements in defence acquisition. We don’t know if anything similar is being used in the UK, in MOD perhaps? Nothing we know of anyway.

The question also raises its own question – what exactly is big data? Is it simply the ability to analyse more data, huge quantities in fact, more quickly and intelligently, driven by increased and cheaper computing power? Or does the definition also include elements of artificial intelligence and machine learning, such that the system is doing some of its “own” analysis on the data?

Personally, it feels like “big data” is as much a marketing “brand” as it is something genuinely distinct and novel. Isn’t just a continuation of the way we’ve constantly found new use cases for technology as Moore’s Law brings down its cost?

But however we define big data and whatever our levels of cynicism, it is interesting to speculate as to where and how central government could use it better in the procurement space. My suspicion though is that often government does not actually want to collect or use data because it might point out inconvenient truths.

A good example - the recent report from Open Opps we featured here on Public Spend Forum  identified that Contracts Finder (the central UK government website) is clearly not being used by public bodies to advertise contract opportunities as extensively as it should be. The government could easily have done the same analysis – but maybe it doesn’t want to, because it would then have to publish the embarrassing results and take some actions.

Anyway, if any readers do know of big data initiatives in UK public sector procurement, please do let us know – we’d love to take a look and feature such examples.

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