Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Swipe should lay the ground for digital wallets in UK

Increased spending through NFC can weaken the dependence on chip and PIN

Digital wallets have not yet taken off in the UK. They tick boxes for user benefits, notably in making it easier to pay and allowing people to see the balance of cash in the wallet, but the big players are not pushing the smartphones apps or dedicated devices here; and Google has kept quiet about any UK launch.

If there’s a big difference between here and the US, where they are becoming established, it’s that we’re firmly wedded to chip and PIN payments. We feel more secure punching those four numbers into a keypad, so the retailers prefer the technology and the banks remain committed. It would be a massive change for all three to switch to swipe and pay by smartphone.

But the first steps have been taken. Banks are issuing more cards with a near field communication facility for swipe payments, some retailers are taking them up for small transactions, and Transport for London has stopped taking cash in favour of swipe cards for bus fares. Between them they are beginning to build a momentum towards people paying by swipe every day.

It’s probably two, three, four years away, but it should take us to a point where chip and PIN is not as precious to the UK public and businesses, especially those in retail. That’s when they will be more open to using digital wallets, and the point at which Google and its competitors are ready for a push.

If the banks take a lead there would be a better chance of building momentum, as consumers would feel more comfortable with that direct link to their current account. That could provide some interesting competition between the financial institutions and tech companies.

It all comes down working with the consumer mindset, and that takes time to change. But swipe payments will take the UK a step towards digital wallets.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Why you won’t get systems integrators out of government

Ambitious projects demand expertise that won’t always be found in-house

“SMEs good, systems integrators (SIs) bad” was one of the earliest messages to come from the Conservatives on UK government IT. Before they came to power their lead voice on the subject, the now government chief technology officer Liam Maxwell, attributed many of Whitehall’s IT woes to complex projects with big contracts that gave too much power and too much taxpayers’ money to SIs.

Since 2010 the coalition government has taken some big steps to break the pattern – the £100 million limit on IT contracts, a two year limit on hosting contracts, not allowing firms to run service provision and systems integration in the same area, development of the G Cloud procurement framework – and given SMEs a better chance to grab some of the market. But one message to emerge from Whitehall Media’s Public Sector ICT Conference was that the SIs are still big in the field and they’re not going away.

Several speakers raised the subject, and none claimed or forecast that the SIs’ presence is seriously diminished. There was talk of their role changing – to provide infrastructure for innovators and offer a wider range of distinct services for different projects – but there was an underlying assumption that they will continue to play a major role.

It all comes down to complexity and expertise. Government at all levels is trying to use IT to change the way it works, the Digital by Default strategy aims to make digital services the norm, and there are still major projects such as Universal Credit. These require a lot of expertise – in understanding the technology, programme engineering and risk management – that government often lacks in-house. And the SMEs may have the in-depth expertise for parts of a process, but they’re not well placed to bring together the myriad elements of a big programme. 

Government has long been trying to build these skills in-house, but it is difficult to keep up. The technology changes quickly and the private sector is always ready to lure the best and brightest towards higher pay cheques. There are always going to be gaps in government’s skills pool, and it has to buy in expertise to fill those gaps. The message from the conference speakers was that government shouldn’t try to deny this, but manage it to do the best for itself and the taxpayer.

The government’s rules are likely to help in limiting the long term commitments to SIs; sustained efforts to build in-house skills should ensure there are some experts committed to a role in public service; and government needs to retain the intellectual capital from large projects. Measures such as these can make a difference in changing the balance, making government a more powerful customer.

That’s a more realistic relationship to aim for than banishing SIs from government IT.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See