The key public-sector technology trends to look out for in 2018

PublicTechnology editor Sam Trendall picks out three topics that may define the year ahead

A wise old maxim has it that one should never make predictions – especially about the future. 

But, as the number at the top of the calendar ticks over, this time of year seems to bring out the soothsayer in many of us. So, while it may be a fool’s errand, we thought we’d dust off the PublicTechnology crystal ball and pick out three key trends we think will define the government digital and data space in 2018.

Identity assurance
The progress of the GOV.UK Verify service this year has been steady rather than stellar. It began 2017 with about a million registered users, and ended it with 1.7 million. The proportion of visits to the platform that result in a user successfully using it to access another government service currently stands at 38% – a figure which has been fairly steady for several months.

Meanwhile, a number of other public organisations – most recently the Scottish Government – continue to consider the merits of building their own platform. 

There is a reason so many people want to get identity-assurance right; the existence of a reliable, repeatable, and massively scalable way of verifying users’ identity could be transformational for the type and variety of services that the public sector is able to offer digitally. There are certain services that, as it stands, it is simply not possible to move online. 

But as and when the public sector really cracks the issue of identity-assurance, the amount of public interaction with government that is digital-based could increase rapidly and exponentially.

The Government Digital Service would, clearly, prefer it if Verify became the identity-assurance standard – and it may yet do so; it is certainly best placed of all the options at the moment even if, for many people, the jury is still out. A different solution may emerge and lead the way, or the landscape may end up being much more fragmented.

Whichever way the market decides to go, a lot of people will be making this journey. In 12 months time, we should have a much clearer idea of the direction of travel.

Chief data officers
Over the last couple of years chief data officers (CDOs) – or similar job roles – have begun to pop up with increased frequency across Whitehall. GDS led the way with the appointment of Paul Maltby in 2015, in a role designed to enhance the way the government uses data.

The following year saw the Department for Work and Pensions create a chief data officer role, while the data revolution began to pick up pace in 2017, as organisations including Ordnance Survey, the Department for Education, and HM Revenue and Customs all established a CDO post.

Next year the issue of data will come into even sharper focus. Not only are there an increasing number of advocates for the better use of data in designing policy and delivering services, but the implementation on May 25 of the EU General Data Protection Regulation will create new obligations for public bodies in terms of how they collect and process people’s data.

As it stands, most organisations’ data-focused programmes come under the remit of a senior manager in a related field – digital, most likely, but perhaps ICT, or customer services. But as data becomes an ever-bigger opportunity and challenge for all public sector entities, more Whitehall departments will surely create chief data officer roles, or similar, and the wider public sector will, in time, follow their lead.

By the time Christmas 2018 rolls around, there were surely be at a least few more CDOs in the contacts book of anyone involved in public-sector technology.

Technology in mental health and social care
There is, at long last, an ever-greater awareness and appreciation of the importance of mental health, and the destructive impact common illnesses such as depression and anxiety can have on sufferers and those close to them.

With this greater awareness has come a number of new ideas for how technology can be used to treat mental health conditions, and issues such as loneliness and social isolation, as well as those with mobility or developmental conditions that make independent living more difficult.

In the latter case, technology can be deployed in people’s homes to help provide more freedom to live independently, while offering reassurance to both users and carers that assistance can be easily obtained, if required.

Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, meanwhile, is a great example of how the internet can be an effective tool in helping treat mental health problems. The trust’s SHaRON platform provides an online community where sufferers of eating disorders can anonymously support one another, and voluntary moderators are on hand around the clock to provide help to users suffering a crisis. Such a platform is especially helpful given the difficulties many sufferers of mental-health problems have in seeking help, and the fact that even those in treatment typically have no more than an hour’s therapy each week.

The internet can also be an invaluable tool in helping the isolated or socially excluded – especially elderly people – connect with the wider world. Hampshire County Council has shown the benefits that can be achieved when isolated older people are equipped with devices and connectivity allowing them to see and hear from family and friends.

For councils and NHS trusts, services such as these seem to be low-risk and high-reward; they are relatively easy to deploy and serve as an addition, rather than a replacement of existing services. Crucially, they can have a swift and major impact on the quality of service delivered, which is compelling for authorities fighting with everything they’ve got to maintain service standards in the face of huge funding challenges.

Sam Trendall

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