The biggest government tech stories of 2019 – part one

We round up the events and trends that shaped the year

Part two of this article is now published here.

It’s been a bit of a quiet year, eh?

In these times of stability and certitude, it can be difficult for journalists to find things to write about – particularly those of us who concern ourselves with what the government is up to.

But, even against a backdrop of general uneventfulness, PublicTechnology has endeavoured to bring you news and analysis on the digital and data implications of the few things of note to happen this year in Whitehall, Westminster, the NHS, local government, and law enforcement.

We can only thank our readers for sticking with us through such soporific times.

And, over the course of 2019, there were a few things that got you clicking; we have been through the stats and come up with the 10 biggest stories of the year.

In this first part of our annual round-up, we go through numbers 10 to six. Look out tomorrow for the rundown of the five biggest stories.

10. Full fibre
The discussion around full-fibre broadband progressed significantly in 2019. By eight years, to be precise.

In May 2018 then chancellor Philip Hammond set out the government’s vision that fibre-to-the-premises network would reach an additional two UK million buildings each year for the next decade and half, resulting in comprehensive coverage by 2033.

Fast forward 18 months and the Conservatives general election manifesto was promising that ubiquitous connectivity will now be achieved by 2025. To achieve this, networks will have to be rolled out at about double the speed envisioned by Hammond.

But this Tory pledge was only the second most eye-catching broadband-based policy unveiled during the election period; Labour rather stole a march on the government with its own proposal to renationalise part of BT and deliver free full-fibre connectivity to everyone in the country.

All the while, numerous towns, cities and regions have pressed ahead with their own initiatives to deliver local FTTP networks. Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Wolverhampton, and Durham all floated contracts this year seeking delivery partners, while there was also government-backed investment in the Scottish Highlands and Islands.

However, parliamentary questions in July revealed that a £400m government fund created to support investments in companies delivering full-fibre networks has, since its summer 2017 launch, largely sat unused.

But, with a promise to “scale up investment” via the fund in 2020 and beyond, full fibre seems likely to remain a big story for a number of years yet.

9. General practice transformation
As the country slid towards an increasingly inevitable election, the front line of the NHS was on the front line of the political battle throughout the year.

This brought with it a sharp focus on the sufficiency and efficacy of the health service’s resources, with technology and IT systems a key part of that discussion. 

Developments in 2019 will bring significant change to how tech is used by the healthcare professionals whom most of us see far more frequently than any other: our community GPs.

Across the course of the year, the Department of Health and Social Care worked to bring to fruition the new £500m GP IT Futures framework. 

Health secretary Matt Hancock has claimed that the deal will break the current duopoly of EMIS Health and TPP SystmOne, which currently account for the vast majority of the GP IT market. 

A total of 69 firms won a spot on the framework, which now features seven providers of core record systems.

New technology is sorely needed across the world of general practice, according to the Royal College of General Practitioners which, earlier this year, warned Hancock that, without investment in basic IT infrastructure that is fit for purpose, his envisioned technology “revolution” will never come to pass.

Particularly as many surgeries still need to undertake multimillion-pound projects to digitise paper Lloyd George records which, in some cases, are 70 years old.


8. The end of GSI
Any technology that, if it were a person, would long since have been able to vote and get married, is probably overdue for an upgrade.

But breaking up can be hard to do – especially after more than two decades together. In 2019 the civil service faced the heart-wrenching task of finally waving goodbye to the Government Secure Intranet, commonly known as GSi.

The technology was first launched in 1997 as a means of allowing government organisations to securely communicate and share data.

In 2010 the government announced that it wanted to start moving towards new technology and that GSi email domains would be supported for no longer than five years.

After a rather long five years, the deadline for migrating away from GSi came and went this year. The 31 March cut-off was announced 18 months beforehand but, still, two months before the deadline, almost one in four departments had yet to complete the process.

This included two of the biggest departments by headcount: the Department for Work and Pensions; and HM Revenue and Customs.

Between them, the two departments employ more than 150,000 people. All of whom – along with the rest of Whitehall – should have needed to update their email signature in 2019.


7. All change at the top of GDS
The most prominent public sector technology agency, the Government Digital Service, ends 2019 with completely new political and executive leaders than those with which it began the year.

After three years as director general, it was announced in June that Kevin Cunnington was to leave GDS to take up a newly created Cabinet Office-based post as the UK’s digital envoy. In his new role, he is tasked with “promoting the work of UK government services, including the digital sector, across the world”.

He has been replaced as leader of GDS by Alison Pritchard, who formerly headed up the organisation’s Brexit work. Pritchard officially holds the post on an interim basis, so more change at the top could be forthcoming in the new year.

Whoever is in charge of GDS, their role will be supplemented by a new arrival: the government chief digital and information officer.  The permanent secretary-level post has been created to provide a new figurehead for IT and digital across the civil service. The job was advertised in September and the successful candidate will ultimately serve as the head of government’s 17,000-strong digital, data and technology profession – a responsibility that currently sits with the leader of GDS.

In 2019 GDS also saw ministerial, as well as management change. Oliver Dowden’s 18-month spell as the Westminster representative of GDS came to an end in July when he was promoted to become Cabinet Office minister.

His replacement as minister for implementation, Simon Hart, lasted only four months before he was appointed Welsh secretary shortly after the election. The GDS brief now looks set to be taken on by Jeremy Quin, who has joined the Cabinet Office as a junior minister.


6. Procurement shake-up
PublicTechnology broke the news earlier this year that responsibility for running the Digital Marketplace – the primary vehicle for government to shop for and buy cloud and development services – has been shifted from GDS to its sister agency, the Crown Commercial Service.

The procurement agency also revealed that it is working to build a so-called ‘Digital Marketplace 2’, an all-new procurement platform that will supersede the existing system.

For the last few years, CCS had been working on the development of the Crown Marketplace, which was envisioned as an ‘Amazonesque’ online catalogue through which the public sector could buy a comprehensive range of goods and services. This project has now been ditched, in favour of something which will bear more resemblance to a comparison website. 

To go with the new marketplace – which is due to launch within the next 18 months – CCS will also look to shake up the current landscape of tech and digital frameworks.

Alongside the broad scope of G-Cloud, the agency also wishes to introduce a framework specialised in the area of cloud hosting, as well as one geared to artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics.




Sam Trendall

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