Virtual mortgages and online divorces – the future of government digital services

Resilience and efficiency minister Caroline Nokes discusses the UK’s progress to date in the digital government space, and where its priorities lie now

Within the next three years the government plans to create 89 new digital services – including online divorces and mortgages.

In a speech this morning to the Institute for Government, minister for government resilience and efficiency Caroline Nokes laid out three priorities for the next couple of years to ensure the government is “no longer playing catch-up” in the digital space.

The first of these is to develop the GOV.UK platform beyond just an online home where government data is consolidated and presented as simply as possible. The next stage in the site’s development will be “structuring services and content to make sure it can be accessed and reused”, by all applications and devices, including by voice tools like Siri and Alexa.

The second focus will be to examine how government can learn from the private sector in its approach to technology, including the use of sandbox environments, where new software can be developed and tested in isolation.

The third priority area is cybersecurity, where Nokes said the government will invest £1.9bn over the five-year lifetime of the National Cyber Security Strategy, which launched a year ago. Central to that will be continued spending on the National Cyber Security Centre, which opened in London in February.

All of this will feed into the creation of an estimated 89 new digital services, including online platforms to manage getting divorced and obtaining a mortgage.

“Anyone who has been through the hideousness of either of those two processes will know that they need to improve,” Nokes said.

The resilience and efficiency minister added that, while she wants to see the UK remain on top of the UN’s e-government rankings, that is not the government’s primary objective.

“We still want to break new ground, innovate, and stay on top,” she said. “But this isn’t about government for the sake of government. We do well to remember, at all times, that we are doing this for the citizens we serve.”

Nokes added: “On my first visit to GDS, I made that point very clearly to them – this is not about being better at digital government to stay at the top of world rankings, this is about making sure that we are delivering services effectively, and more promptly, for our citizens.”

A platform for success
Nokes pointed to GDS’s Government as a Platform programme an important example of a digital project that has made services “easier to create, and cheaper to run”. A total of 26 government departments or agencies are currently using Government as a Platform tools to cumulatively deliver more than 100 services, she added.

The Notify messaging service, the Pay tool for taking payments, and the Verify identity assurance offering are leading exemplars of how the “platform approach allows us to build reliable, user-focused services with digital components”.

“We know that reinventing the wheel every single time we need a solution leads to duplication, disjointedness, and to waste,” Nokes said. “There was a clear need to develop common solutions to common problems, [such as] how to let users know about the progress of something, or how to take payments.”

Nokes claimed that, in much the same way as it has developed digital tools for use across the public sector, the government will work to standardise its use of data.

“We should take advantage of the opportunities that data gives us to deliver the best policies and services,” she said. “Data should be easy to find, to access, and to use.”

Part of the government’s work in this regard will be updating the Data Science Ethical Framework, which it published last summer. It will also look to “modernise [its] data infrastructure”, the minister added. 

To this end, GDS is “working with departments on GOV.UK registers”, she said. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s country register, and the register of English local authorities currently being developed by GDS and the Department for Communities and Local Government were picked out as two examples of the kind of government data sources that should, in the next few years, be made available both to government policymakers, and to journalists, and the wider public. 

Effective procurement and use of technologies developed by the private sector will also play an important role, the minister claimed.

“I’ve talked about building things but sometimes the right things already exist,” Nokes said. “When this is the case, we must help government buy the right products, tools, and services to enable transformation. Efficiency doesn’t mean cutting spending – smart spending is vital. We are improving the ease with which departments can do this.”

Nokes concluded that, in the digital services space, the government remainss committed to making improvements that will benefit itself, and those it serves. 

She said: “We have delivered – and are delivering – for citizens and civil servants alike.”


Sam Trendall

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