Can the GDS innovation strategy deliver a lasting legacy for government?

Government’s new Innovation Strategy set out ambitious proposals to update processes, eliminate ageing kit, and embrace emerging technologies. PublicTechnology caught up with GDS innovation head Sue Bateman to find out more

Credit: Tero Vesalainen/Pixabay

Published earlier this year after almost 10 months of work, the Government Technology Innovation Strategy set out to map Whitehall’s existing use of emerging technologies, and lay out a long-term vision for how government can work more innovatively to deliver services.

It is designed to help departments prepare for upcoming spending review, and plan for how best to direct their resources.

The task of drawing up the strategy was the responsibility of a small team in the Government Digital Service, led by the organisation’s deputy director of innovation Sue Bateman.

“We see the strategy splitting into our overarching objectives in GDS. Which means we want our citizens to be getting the best digital services that they can. And, for us, innovation and emerging technology plays a key part in that,” Bateman tells PublicTechnology. “There is the wider context around the rate at which technology is changing and the rate at which also the size and scale of data is shifting all of the time. And we see those as being a key part of how we can continue to improve the kind of digital services that we deliver.”

The precursor to the strategy was the Technology innovation in government survey commissioned in 2017 by GDS. This piece of research, which was led by external consultant Martin Smith and published last year, sought to deliver a “landscape review of technology innovation across government”.

“One of the areas that we are looking at… is data standards and metadata standards. We’re doing some early thinking now with representatives from different departments to [address whether] there is an overarching framework that we need.. that will mean that data can flow more easily where it needs to.”

This included insights into what emerging technologies are currently being used by government agencies and for what purpose, and the extent to which innovation is supported by networks, hubs, and communities.  

Smith made a number of recommendations for how GDS can “better coordinate, share best practice and drive technology innovation in government”. His primary suggestion was that the digital agency should develop and publish an innovation strategy.

The resultant plan, which was released two months ago, is split into three main tracks: people; process; and data and technology. 

The first of these examines the existing digital and data capability of the civil service, and how best government can solve its skills challenges.

Bateman says that the level of digital and data literacy “varies across organisations”. It is important that government works to build both advanced and elementary expertise, she adds.

“We need to continue to build those specialist skills – because they’re going to be absolutely key to the design and delivery of public services,” Batemans says. “But, increasingly, we also need to look at the broader workforce, and help senior leaders and others in non-specialist roles understand the potential of data, understand the potential of emerging technology, and feel more comfortable and confident about using those in their everyday work.”

The strategy sets out a number of proposals, including increasing apprenticeships, and establishing a secondment programme allowing officials to spend time working for technology companies.

Estimated value of the Spark innovation marketplace 

Number of challenges supported by the GovTech Catalyst programme

30 years old
Age of the legacy IT system used by the DWP to run the state pension, according to CDIO Simon McKinnon

Number of areas covered by current civil service business cases: strategic; economic; commercial; financial; and management

Date of the last full spending review

Bateman says that, although there is no firm plan in place yet, one model being considered for the secondment scheme is that used by the Civil Service Fast Stream programme for the Digital, Data and Technology profession. Fast streamers – who consist of both graduates and existing civil servants wishing to move into a new specialism – take on six placements covering various government departments and jobs over the course of a four-year scheme.

“There’s a lot that we can learn from, not just industry, but academia and the third sector as well,” Bateman says. “But I also think there are some things that we’re developing inside government that are useful for others outside government as well. And, internationally, we have a number of other governments who come and visit to understand what we’re doing in GDS.”

Challenging work
The process section of the strategy was, according to Bateman, primarily focused on “supporting viable procurement” of innovative technologies and services. 

The plan sets out various means of doing this, including expanding the use of the kind of buying models trialled in the GovTech Catalyst programme. The three-year scheme, which debuted last year, allows public sector organisations to put forward service challenges, with commercial or academic entities responding with potential solutions – the development of which can then be funded through a series of stages. It is backed by a dedicated £20m fund.

The programme has successfully launched three rounds, each containing five challenges. Among those selected for inclusion are a challenge put forward by the Home Office and the Border Force to detect illicit postal goods at the UK border, and a challenge proposed by local authorities in Leeds and York to use sensors to monitor possible environmental issues in social housing.

“We are year one into a three-year programme, and I think that there will be time for us to reflect on the lessons,” Bateman says. “We’ve had a great response rate from public sector challenge owners – way more than we could have supported in this first round of the programme and, similarly, from suppliers, where the range – whether you go split it geographically or by kinds of organisations – has also been brilliant.” 

She adds: “The proof [of its success] will be as we get deeper into actually running the different challenges and learning from that. But, certainly, one of the things that we will start to think about as we understand a bit more about how the challenges are progressing, is absolutely the question of how do we scale that? And some of it might be running more challenges into future years beyond that the first three years but, increasingly, it will be thinking about that broader capability question.”

GDS legacy technology criteria

  • End-of-life products
  • Out of supplier support
  • Impossible to update
  • No longer cost-effective
  • Above acceptable risk threshold

The strategy also introduced Spark – which is described as an “innovation marketplace” for public sector organisations to buy a range of emerging technologies, including wearable tech and artificial intelligence. Spark is a dynamic purchasing system, to which suppliers can be added over the course of its three-year lifespan. A total of 20 firms have been accredited thus far. 

A revamp of the requirements for civil service business cases is also required, the process section of the strategy concluded. Currently, proposals for government projects, policies, and strategies require the use of the so-called five-case model. This method asks civil servants to construct a compelling case that encompasses strategic, economic, commercial, financial, and management arguments.

According to Bateman, the aim is to explore how business cases could help organisations collaborate in support of mutual ambitions.

She says: “Where we were coming from in terms of business cases was [asking] how do we enable public sector organisations to join up more effectively together where there is a shared aim and objective, and help them to demonstrate the benefits for a number of organisations that may reach beyond a traditional business case with one organisation.”

A lasting legacy
The last of the three areas covered by the strategy – data and technology – includes a pledge to update the standards and guidance that apply to the government’s use of tech. A particular focus will be the application of standards to best support data sharing.

“One of the areas that we are looking at… is data standards and metadata standards, and there’s work that is being progressed jointly with GDS, DCMS and ONS in this space,” Bateman says. “We’re doing some early thinking now with representatives from different departments to [address whether] there is an overarching framework that we need, with the ultimate aim of having consistency across the piece, that will mean that data can flow more easily where it needs to.”

Among the most eye-catching measures put forward by the strategy is a proposal to “develop a detailed cross-government view of the scale of the challenge of legacy technology [and] put in place plans to tackle it”.

The GDS definition of legacy technology encompasses any hardware, software or business process which meets one or more of the following criteria: being considered an end-of-life product; being no longer supported by the supplier; being impossible to update; being considered to be “above the acceptable risk threshold”; and being no longer cost-effective.

As with the strategy as a whole, the plan to map legacy technology across government is intended to help departments better prepare for the spending review and plan how best to allocate their resources.

Bateman (pictured left) says: “The UK was one of the first governments to embrace digital, so we’ve probably got a lot more legacy than some other countries that have come slightly later to the piece. It’s an area that will probably be part of the next spending review – because there will need to be some investment and careful planning around what we do. So, that work is starting now to think about what is the forward plan, and how much investment do we need to make across government and then in specific departments.”

The process of creating a government-wide view of legacy tech will also enable GDS to dedicate its time and expertise where they will provide the greatest benefit.

She adds: “It will help us understand which departments may need more support from us than others. And, equally, where some departments are able to move ahead at a faster pace, getting them to support and share their lessons as well.”

The concept of innovation may invoke images of ripping up the rulebook – if not throwing it out entirely.  But, for some, it is simply business as usual.

“Innovation is in GDS’s DNA,” Bateman says. “GOV.UK was an innovation. The capabilities that we’ve helped government develop have been an innovation. End-to-end service design is an innovation. This is a natural progression from what we’ve been doing from day one.”


Sam Trendall

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