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Government hurting, not helping, innovation

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The UK government has come under fire for its ability to foster innovation in IT, with criticism reserved for "big" government projects and a crippling regulatory framework.

Jonathan Steel, founder and chief executive of software consultancy The Bathwick Group, said Tuesday the "monolithic" approach to procuring and implementing IT in government projects has been proven to be the "wrong model."

"Innovation would be best served by supporting small innovative technology companies. It's impossible for small innovative companies to get work with government unless you go through a big, prime contractor," Steel said.

And, far from being a benign benefactor providing a framework that fosters growth, government is "strangling" innovation through regulation of the small businesses. "I wish they would do a lot less [rules and regulations]. One reason we [the UK] are less innovative [than the US] is because of all those rules," Steel claimed.

Steel was one half of a debating duo at Silicon.com's CIO Forum in London on Tuesday, arguing against a motion that the private sector delivers less innovation in IT than the public sector. Supporting the motion was former minister for science and technology at the Department of Trade and Industry, conservative MP Ian Taylor.

Taylor argued the UK government has a good history of innovation, "pulling together ideas that can be used by the private sector". This spans the release of the UK's wireless spectrum to telecoms companies, the transfer of knowledge in defense and security projects to develop unmanned vehicles and robots, and advances in the storage and analysis of data in distributed networks.

Taylor said government is able to stimulate the process of innovation through funding and education, calling national and local institutions the "bulk applier of ideas."

Steel shot back, saying that the rise of the internet meant innovation was coming from many different places and that this helped minimize the role played by government. "True innovation is not something that happens centrally. It comes from individuals. Since the advent of the internet, we have seen a massive increase in innovation because individuals can innovate and create new things," Steel said.

The public sector, he added, was unable to innovate to the same extent as the private sector because innovation involves a degree of risk and the public sector is, by nature, risk averse as it's responsible for the public's money.

Quoting a football analogy, Steel summed up: "Just because you support football doesn't make you David Beckham. Because the public sector supports technology, doesn't make you innovative. Period."

An audience of public and private sector CIOs attending the debate at the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane supported Steel and voted against the motion.®

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