The three public sector technology trends that will define 2019

PublicTechnology editor Sam Trendall picks out the topics and trends that will dominate the year ahead, and revisits the predictions of a year ago to see any of them came to pass

Credit: Marco Verch/CC BY 2.0

Predictions are apt to make one look foolish at the best of times.

And you might have noticed that the UK in late 2018 seems quite a long way from the best of times.

Given the all-encompassing uncertainty in which the country is currently gripped, it might appear folly to make any predictions about anything anywhere until further notice. 

But, then again, while our so-called leaders lurch from one looming national crisis to the next on an almost daily basis, perhaps it behoves the rest of us to take the advice of the wartime government – and a million tea towels – and keep calm and carry on.

Coders should continue to code, data analysts should continue to data analyse, and policymakers should continue to policymake.

Journalists, meanwhile, should clearly continue to churn out thinkpieces and listicles.

So, in that spirit of brave stoicism, we bring you the PublicTechnology rundown of the three trends – because, as every journo knows, three is the shortest list technically possible – to look out for in the public sector technology space in 2019.

You may not have heard much about it but, as it stands, the UK plans to leave the European Union on 29 March.

The impact of doing so may seem so self-evident as to be pointless to include in a piece such as this. But to be in the same space as such an elephantine presence as Brexit and not mention it would be highly disingenuous.

If I were to list the things that will most define and shape the public-sector technology space next year – as I am doing here – then Brexit would necessarily be at the top of that list. In truth, it would be the entire list.

In the London borough of Haringey one in six residents is an EU citizen; for many public-sector organisations, EU nationals will represent a significant chunk of both their workforce and the citizens they serve.

Because, if and when we leave the EU, the impact on every single branch of the public sector will be huge. The effect Brexit will have on the work of digital and data professionals may be a little less obvious than in policy or delivery. But it will still be the single biggest issue they face this year and will, in some way, shape, or form, affect most day-to-day tasks.

The impact in central government has already been keenly felt, and will continue to be so. The financial, operational and technical challenges facing the new Customs Declaration Service being rolled out by HM Revenue and Customs have been well documented. 

The Home Office also has a full plate, with the department’s Digital Services at the Border programme another project whose scope is being widened and complicated by Brexit. The settlement scheme for EU nationals also has a major digital component.

Defra, meanwhile, had as many as 43 Brexit-related programmes ongoing at last count.

The impact of Brexit on law enforcement could also be huge, with police chiefs voicing their growing concern about the possibility of being shut out of crucial continent-wide criminal databases and tools such as the European arrest warrant.

The NHS, education, and local government will also face an array of Brexit-related challenges this year. 

It’s worth remembering that 5.6% of the UK population – almost 3.7 million people – were born in another EU country. In some parts of the UK the percentage is much higher; in the London borough of Haringey, for example, about one in six residents is an EU citizen.

For many public-sector organisations, EU nationals will represent a significant chunk of both their workforce and the citizens they serve. 

Simply ensuring continuity for these people will be a key challenge for the public sector in the months ahead, and digital platforms and effective use of data will likely be a major part of the solution.

Scrutiny of data use 
Again, I could be accused of stating the obvious here. 

The collection and use of our personal data – and the ethics thereof – have made more than a few headlines this year. After the Cambridge Analytica revelations, it is hardly revolutionary to predict that greater focus might be placed on who collects our data, what they do with it and, crucially, how much we all know about the whole process.

But for all the flak faced by Facebook and others, the public sector has remained comparatively unscathed thus far. 

Indeed, annual research published in September by the Information Commissioner’s Office showed that NHS entities enjoy higher levels of public trust in the storage and use of personal data than organisations in any other sector. Second in the most-trusted league table is the police, with central government in third, and local government in fifth. 

All of these areas of the public sector are currently much more trusted to collect and process data responsibly than online retailers, telecoms firms, and utilities providers. Social-messaging platforms are, perhaps unsurprisingly, by far the least-trusted organisations of all, the ICO research reveals.

But the scrutiny on how personal data is gathered and used will only increase. And, however highly trusted it is currently, the public sector will by no means be immune from this.

Over the course of 2018, there have already been some rumblings of discontent about certain instances of citizen data being collected, shared, or processed by public bodies. 

Biometrics is proving to be a controversial area, with the police facing a backlash against its trials of facial-recognition technology, and HMRC subjected to an ICO investigation over its use of “implied consent” to collect citizens’ voiceprints. NHS Digital, meanwhile, faced criticism when it emerged that the organisation had shared patient information with the Home Office for the purposes of immigration enforcement. 

As more and more data is shared across central and local government, law enforcement, and the NHS – and with commercial partners too – it seems certain that there will be more such controversies. Which, in turn, will bring greater levels of scrutiny and – if the public sector is not careful – will pose a real threat to the trust it currently enjoys.

The future of Government as a Platform
The GOV.UK Government as a Platform suite of tools and guidance – which includes Verify, Notify, and Pay – are often positioned as the crowning achievement of the transformation led by the Government Digital Service.

And the creation of a common set of components and guidelines that serves a landscape as vast, diverse, and diffuse as government is a terrific accomplishment. And one that has facilitated a huge amount of hugely transformational work in the last few years.

But GaaP is at something of a crossroads, and GDS needs to progress in the right direction to ensure that its products and advice remain relevant.

The Scottish Government recently announced that it will be exploring the possibility of building its own payment platform that addresses “a wider remit than what GOV.UK Pay currently covers – addressing both inbound and outbound payments”.

The Ministry of Justice is another agency that is looking at the possibility of expanding on the work of GDS. The MoJ’s digital team has created a “form builder” tool which it believes could help the department digitise a set of about 150 services that includes many that are used, in some cases, only a few hundred times each year. So infrequently are these services accessed that putting them through the rigours of the GDS-mandated service assessment is nigh-on impossible.

GaaP is at something of a crossroads, and GDS needs to progress in the right direction to ensure that its products and advice remain relevant

The MoJ is working with GDS to try and address this – and believes the form builder tool could hold the answer. The department’s chief digital and information officer Tom Read recently told PublicTechnology that he believes the form builder would be a good fit for Government as a Platform and that he would like it to ultimately join the roster of GaaP tools.

For this to happen, GDS would clearly have to open up and welcome more external input.

And the signs are that it may be willing to do so; as part of the Innovation Strategy GDS is currently developing, the organisation has created a machine learning-powered “innovation map” where departments and agencies can see – and potentially make use of – innovative ideas and tools that have been developed by their peers across government. 

Another key component of Government as a Platform – the Verify identity assurance service – will shortly be taken forward for further development by its private-sector partners.

With many departments now boasting significant in-house development skills – and with more and more commercial partners creating tools based on public sector data – the onus will increasingly be on the centre of government to provide not necessarily leadership, but curation and direction.  

GDS has provided a great platform for digital government – but in the 12 months ahead we may see the real building work begin.

How did we do last year?
In the interests of demonstrating the same level of transparency and accountability as the public-sector bodies that we report on, PublicTechnology is happy to report back on the three areas we picked out 12 months ago as key trends to look out for in 2018.

Broadly speaking, we’d say our hit rate was around one and a half out of three.

Our most prescient prediction was that identity assurance would be an area to keep an eye on in 2018. After running through the uncertainty facing GOV.UK Verify, we boldly asserted that “in 12 months’ time, we should have a much clearer idea of the direction of travel”.

We were not wrong. 

Despite some success on the part of GDS in growing Verify’s uptake this year, the government announced in October that the service will ultimately be handed over to the private sector. Public funding for the service will end in early 2020.

Our second predicted trend for 2018 was the rise of the chief data officer – a role we forecast would become a lot more common over the course of the year. There have been a few notable examples of public sector agencies hiring senior data leaders this year, including a newly created chief data officer post currently open at the Department for International Trade.

But it is fair to say that the swathes of CDOs we predicted 12 months ago have not materialised. Indeed, the post of chief data officer for government remains unfilled, almost two years after it was announced that the role was to be created. 

But this situation has, at least, helped bring into focus the importance of chief data officers. We may yet see a few more of their ilk in the coming months.

Our final prediction for the hot topics of 2018 was the use of technology in mental health and social care. The piece we wrote last year forecast the continued rise to prominence of assistive in-home technologies for elderly people or those with physical or developmental difficulties, and online platforms for sufferers of mental-health conditions.

Over the course of 2018, there have been a number of examples of investments in these technologies; last month NHS Digital announced the award of £800,000 in funding for digital social care initiatives at nine local authorities, while a number of mental health services – such as in Lincolnshire – are exploring the benefits of online therapy tools. 

These examples do not quite add up to the revolution we saw coming 12 months ago. But, with the tech-minded Matt Hancock (pictured left, credit: PA) recently appointed as health secretary, we can expect further innovations to follow in 2019. 

Sam Trendall

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