Completing our 2019 round-up with the rundown of the five biggest stories of the year
The first half of our annual round-up of the year’s biggest topics and trends covered everything from national tech infrastructure and change in central government leadership, to front-line service delivery and the IT tools used by public servants.
Our rundown of the top five public sector technology stories of the year takes into ethics, the intricacies of the law, and what happens when tech runs up against international political tensions.
Let’s begin our countdown.
5 Data ethics and artificial intelligence
This year has brought increased scrutiny of the morality of how government and industry gathers our personal data, and what they do with it.
Alongside which has been ever-greater focus on what happens when our most sensitive information is processed and interpreted not by another human, but by an algorithm.
Run by the West Midlands Police and backed by multimillion-pound support from the Home Office, law enforcement’s National Data Analytics Solution project has proven a controversial attempt to use data analytics in the delivery of public services. Critics have compared it the dystopia depicted in the movie Minority Report.
But earlier in the year, then superintendent Iain Donnelly told PublicTechnology that his ambition was simply to “adopt a public health approach” to the problem of knife crime.
The GP at Hand app – which serves as the NHS GP for more than 50,000 UK citizens – has also courted controversy for its use AI.
Babylon Health, the company behind the app, faced criticism in September when it emerged that the program’s symptom-checker chatbot was providing very different diagnoses to male and female patients presenting possible evidence of a heart attack.
The government has already faced calls to enshrine in law a right for citizens to receive an explanation – and, if need be, challenge – of algorithmic decisions that relate to their life. Those calls have thus far not been heeded but, with regulators keeping a close eye on this area, this is likely to remain a big story in 2020.
4 GDPR fallout
Speaking of stories that do not seem to go away, 2019 was the first full year of the EU General Data Protection Regulation – and the legislation continued to make headlines.
The demands of GDPR resulted in a big spike in the numbers of data breaches being reported by government departments.
But, for the time being at least, this zealous approach appears to be working, with no major fines yet levied on a government entity.
The first major penalty imposed was on Google, which was hit by French regulator CNIL with a €50m fine earlier this year.
The UK’s Information Commissioner got in on the act later in 2019, slapping a record £183m penalty on British Airways.
3 Making Tax Digital
Another long-term story that continued developing and evolving over the course of 2019 was HM Revenue and Customs’ ongoing work to equip the UK with a new tech-powered tax system.
Shortly before the start of the year – and just a few months before Making Tax Digital for VAT came into effect – a parliamentary committee urged the department to delay the rollout of the programme by 12 months. Members of the Lords Economic Affairs Finance Bill Sub-Committee accused the department of “not listening to SMEs”.
Maybe so, but it did not listen to the Lords either, and the implementation went ahead as scheduled.
HMRC did pledge that, during the programme’s first year of operation, it would take a “light-touch approach” to enforcement. The number of businesses signing up to the scheme grew steadily during the first half of 2019 but, two weeks before the 26 July deadline, almost half of those that needed to register were still yet to do so.
The outlook for the digitisation of the personal tax system is also somewhat uncertain: work on simple assessments and dynamic coding, that was suspended in May 2018, is set to remain on hold – pending the result of the upcoming government spending review.
The next-generation of mobile connectivity – and the benefits it is expected to bring – may not yet be upon us. But, like a towering mobile mast, its presence cast a major shadow over this year.
The biggest cause of this shade has been the subject of whether or not Huawei will be permitted to play a role in implementing the UK’s mobile data infrastructure.
The government began trying to find an answer to that question shortly before the start of 2019. As the year draws to a close, it is no nearer finding the answer.
It was reported in April that then prime minister Theresa May had decided to allow the Chinese vendor to deliver “non-core” parts of the network. The news prompted much debate and backlash, and many suggested that such a decision could drive a wedge between the UK and its intelligence allies overseas.
The final decision on Huawei’s involvement, which had been expected in July, was delayed until the autumn, after the US government placed the tech firm on its “entity list” of companies whose trade is severely restricted.
The date of the decision was then pushed back until the autumn – but this was delayed again by the election. The new parliament is expected to consider the matter and rule definitively in the coming months. Whatever it decides, the decision will reverberate for some time.
All the while, scare stories persist about the alleged impact on public health of the new network. The government has been unequivocal in rebutting such stories – but this has not slowed their pervasion.
1 EU Settlement Scheme
For better or worse, Brexit has dominated the tech sphere as much as it has every other area of government business – and, indeed, of public life.
The digital system to allow EU citizens to apply for, obtain, and demonstrate their right to remain in the UK is one of the biggest and most important technology projects government has ever undertaken. It is also one of the most complex and controversial and – some would maintain – one of the most fundamentally flawed.
After several – not entirely wrinkle-free – test runs, the scheme went fully live shortly before the first of the many planned exit date that came and went this year.
In the meantime, the Home Office has faced repeated and increasingly fervent calls to rethink its decision not to issue EU nationals with any form of physical documentation to prove their status. It has, as yet, ignored such calls – despite multiple parliamentary committees warning the government that this decision is worryingly redolent of the Windrush scandal.
All the while, the nuts-and-bolts functionality of the scheme have also been criticised by users. But, as Michael Gove pointed out during a recent select committee grilling “any computer system” sometimes goes wrong.