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Thu 3 December 2020

David Hencke reports on the extension of a new contract system by Michael Gove’s office, which avoids publication of early bids from tech companies

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The Cabinet Office is planning a £200 million boost to artificial intelligence and machine learning in Whitehall, the NHS and local government using a contract system which allows the public sector to seek out companies to give them the work.

The Cabinet Office Minister, Michael Gove, is making the new system easier and cheaper for small start-up businesses in the field. It will help firms like Faculty AI, the controversial artificial intelligence (AI) data company which has already won contracts with NHSX – a new Government unit “driving forward the digital transformation of health and social care” – to get work. But it will also mean less transparency as the contract will not be publicly known until it is awarded.

Faculty AI has links to Dominic Cummings from its time working on his Vote Leave campaign, with the Prime Minister’s chief advisor keen on the expansion of artificial intelligence in Whitehall.

The system – known as a dynamic purchasing system – is normally used for specialist vehicle purchase and conversions and building cleaning work and was extended to AI on 3 August.

It is being facilitated by the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) – which describes itself as the largest procurement organisation in the UK. It has set up a framework for UK companies to register if they wish to bid for work. Companies can also apply if they are based in the tax havens of Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar.

These will include suppliers of “general AI services; discovery and consultancy work related to the use of AI in public services; development, implementation and support of AI systems in the public sector; data analytics using AI; the development and implementation of intelligent virtual assistants and intelligent personal assistants”.

The CCS said that notionally £200 million is available to spend through the framework, though it was not certain whether all the money would be used – but it will be entirely driven by demand from public sector customers. 

Charities and not-for-profit enterprises will also be able to use the service.


Government’s AI Laboratory

The system works by companies registering with the CCS if they wish to obtain work from the public sector.

Whitehall departments, agencies, the NHS and local government wishing to issue contracts for AI then contact the companies they wish to bid for the work and draw up a short list of bidders who compete for the contract.

The winning tender will be published in the Government’s contract finder service, but it appears that the publication of the offer to tender for the work will be bypassed, reducing transparency.

The CCS will publish a list of suppliers who have sought to register under the framework. At the moment, the list is blank as it has just been launched.

“The UK Government is seeking to accelerate the uptake of artificial intelligence services by government departments,” the CCS said. “The commercial agreement is to be utilised by central Government departments and all other UK bodies. This opportunity may be suitable for economic operators that are small or medium enterprises.”

NHSX has set up a £250 million ‘NHS AI Lab’ and is planning a big expansion of the use of AI across the NHS. It has also set up an ‘Artificial Intelligence in Health and Care Award’ to research new ideas and applications to use AI. The first tranche of this award has received 530 applications.

NHSX signed a COVID-19 contract with Faculty working alongside Palantir, a US firm run by Peter Thiel, who backed Donald Trump in the 2016 US Presidential Election, to set up a national database of chest X-rays of Coronavirus victims. They won the contract without competition because of the emergency of the pandemic.


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