The pandemic has exposed the government’s broken digital promises

While other countries adapted seamlessly to digital doctors’ consultations and online teaching, coronavirus showed how little progress the UK has really made, believes Jack Perschke of netcompany

A deserted Whitehall during the first national lockdown in 2020     Credit: Han YanTimIreland/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

On the face of it, the UK is not doing badly at creating a digital government. 

International rankings consistently place us in the top 10 countries for digital.  However, the truth is that these ratings flatter us. With our ingrained advantages, we should be miles ahead of other nations and our digital capital should have helped us through the pandemic far more than it has. 

Global English is our native language, we are home to one of the world’s most advanced tech hubs, our population is one of the most digitally engaged and we have a relatively centralised system of government with single tax, benefits, health and borders agencies. Everything sits in our favour other than the ability of government to capitalise on it.

Instead of pulling ahead, we consistently lag countries like Denmark, Sweden and South Korea.

Despite not having our advantages, these countries are rapidly pulling out of sight. Transparent and user-friendly services for everything from home education to digital health records are the norm in these nations. When I speak to my Danish colleagues, they talk about how paperwork, project management and internal admin is ‘cold hands work’ and must be reduced.

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In contrast, ‘warm hands work’ are the things done to help people and should be the majority of any public servant’s activity. When we talk about how things are done in UK, they openly wonder if we want our nurses, teachers and police officers to keep their hands as cold as possible.

All of this has cost us dearly through the pandemic. There was no excuse in 2020 for the UK having been caught on the hop with the demands of remote education, digital GP consultations, transparent PPE procurements or automated benefits payments.

Correcting this should be number one priority for the new team in place at Number 10.  Nothing unites people more than the desire for better/simpler/cheaper public services and, underneath everything, that is the promise of digital.  

Eleven years ago, I was working with the Conservative Party preparing for government in the run-up to the 2010 election. The vision was clear: digital government would provide transparency to citizens, efficiency to organisations and information to continuously improve services. We were confident that, in the first term, the UK would see incredible changes. 

A citizen dashboard where services across multiple government departments could be accessed and information changed once and shared many times would have slashed bureaucracy and cost. A simple digital benefits experience would have reduced fraud and allowed data-led policymaking. A citizen-owned medical records portal would have allowed patients to share records between medical staff without convoluted back-office systems. A variety of digital tools would enhance transparency and participation across our democracy. 

Ten years on, none of these services exist and it is undoubtedly true that, had we managed to build them as planned, the cost in lives, money and political trust of the current pandemic would have been significantly reduced.

Small change
When you consider how much technology has changed in the last 10 years and how little government services have changed, it makes our current digital reality even more depressing. In 2009 the iPhone was only two years old and, even then, we could see the changes it would drive. Smartphones are now ubiquitous and, in comparison to 2009, are supercomputers. But what is really different about how we access the services of the state? A few more websites, a few more webforms but nothing like the transformation that smartphone-friendly apps have imposed on the way we travel, bank, eat and work.

What Dominic Cummings got right is the need for Whitehall to be disrupted. Where he went wrong was in where that disruption should come from.

His view was that it should come from some very bright people at the centre. Instead, it should come from citizen-demand met by an explosion of innovation from across the public and private sector. Critically, the job of government should be to promote this innovation and welcome the disruption.

To accelerate progress there are some practical things government can do. It should stop filling floors with hundreds of unaccountable day-rate contractors in an attempt to prove – despite all available evidence – that government is good at building software. It should buy services from suppliers who re-use software from previous deliveries instead of starting from a blank sheet of paper each time. It should cap software development contracts at £10m and insist that suppliers meet time and budget constraints without government getting involved in the how or who of delivery. It should set multiple suppliers off on the same project and see which one gets there first. It should learn from the huge successes on our doorstep in Denmark and elsewhere where they enjoy extraordinary digital services. It should start imaginatively paying for outcomes not inputs – why build systems to process data when you can just set the standards and buy the processed data you need?  

Digital is a favourite drum for this government to beat, but the truth is that the UK’s recent record is woeful. It should be our nation’s greatest strength. To realise this potential, government needs to find the confidence and courage required to allow itself to be disrupted.

As Covid has shown, if you don’t disrupt yourself, it won’t be long until something else does.



Sam Trendall

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