The business case for IT upgrades and a surfeit of sign-ins – five things we learned about the future of digital government

At techUK’s recent annual public sector tech conference, government’s digital leaders discussed their plans for the months ahead and the challenges they currently face. PublicTechnology listened in.

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“It feels like the UK is on the cusp of the next big leap forward in digital government.”

These words formed part of techUK’s scene-setting overview for its Building the Smarter State conference, which took place virtually last month. The event, an annual fixture of the public sector technology scene that was being held for the seventh time, convened a number of people whose job it will be to ensure the country leaps in the right direction, and lands safely.

The leaders of the newly diverged tech agencies at the centre of government – the long-standing Government Digital Service and the recently launched Central Digital and Data Office – both spoke about their plans for the coming months and years. They joined a selection of other speakers from across central and local government, as well as the commercial sector.

Here are five things we learned from the day’s presentations and discussions.

There are 44 different ways to sign in to government services
In his opening keynote – and deputising at short notice for the recently reshuffled minister Julia Lopez – GDS chief executive Tom Read discussed progress on the One Login project. Which, as the name suggests, is designed to deliver a single, unifying login process through which citizens can access all services throughout government.

Due to be introduced next year, it will, most visibly, replace and supersede the little-loved Verify platform. But, according to Read, the new system will supplant a further 100 separate account sign-up processes currently in use across departments and services, encompassing 44 different means of signing in.

“Our mission in GDS is to work in really close partnership with all the other bits of government to build out a simple, joined-up experience of government for everyone.,” he said. “Other nations around the world are already doing this; the private sector has proved similar problems can be solved fairly easily; we do not have to scratch build everything.”


Policy and delivery professionals are being encouraged to get into digital
Joanna Davinson, executive director of the Cabinet Office-based Central Digital and Data Office, said that she would like to see more civil servants able to move from policy and delivery-focused positions into the digital, data and technology profession – for which she serves as cross-government lead.

The 17,000-strong DDaT profession covers a wide range of jobs, including many that are not reserved solely for those with high-end technical skills, she said.

“I would like to see some movement between digital, policy, and operational delivery roles,” Davinson added. “We have been working with HR on schemes where we can bring people in to DDaT; not all DDaT roles require an engineering degree.”


Data literacy should be sine qua non for perm secs
Conference attendees heard that the Office for National Statistics has created a “data masterclass for permanent secretaries”, in which about 20 leaders have so far taken part – as well as Alison Pritchard, deputy national statistician and director general for data capability.

“It is about mainstreaming data in such a way that it can be used to support decision-making,” she said. “But we also need to grow our data science and engineering [profession], so that there is a route for them to become perm secs.”

The ONS training has already had an impact on Whitehall’s existing array of departmental leaders, Pritchard added.

“Instead of sitting round the table in meetings speaking Latin, we are now seeing perm secs using data science terms.”

Using citizen data is a matter of trust 
While the burgeoning field of data analytics offers clear opportunities to inform and improve policy and service delivery, these potential benefits need to be balanced against the risks inherent in the possibility that the relationship with between the state and its citizens could be fundamentally altered forever.

Chris Naylor, the chief executive of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, is one of many leaders across local government to have considered the potential of the kind of predictive analytics that could enable housing or social services teams to make earlier interventions intended to avert homelessness, abuse or other issues. 

While this could both save citizens from trauma and relieve pressure on stretched local government services, it would inevitably “place stress on the relationship” between councils and their most vulnerable citizens, and require a high level of trust in public authorities to be maintained.

“[We would be] going from people coming to the council and saying ‘I have a problem’ to the state coming to them and saying ‘are you OK’?,” Naylor said. “That places a massive burden on trust; this is a conversation about data – but it is also about intimacy and trust.”

There is a good business case for IT upgrades
There can be few, if any, civil service tech professionals who underestimate the importance upgrading the outdated legacy IT still widely in use across government, nor the scale of the challenge in doing so.

The good news, according to Davinson, is that colleagues in the Government Finance Function are increasingly cognisant of the issue.

“I have been very encouraged in the last 18 months that the message is getting through – even in the Treasury,” she said. “There is a cost, but there is an opportunity: the business case is pretty good.”

The Treasury will, no doubt, have taken notice of a report published earlier this year by the Public Accounts Committee, which found that the necessity of “patching up legacy systems” had added £53.2m to HM Revenue and Customs’ operating costs during the early months of the pandemic.

And, with the twice-delayed comprehensive spending review looming, the case for modernising Whitehall’s tech infrastructure may be further strengthened by the recent appointment of Steve Barclay as Cabinet Office minister, a role in which he assumes oversight of digital government.

He moved to the central department from his previous post as chief secretary to the Treasury in which, last summer, he promised that “a key focus of the spending review will be addressing legacy IT”.

The GDS definition of legacy tech 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.

Davinson said that, as well as the financial benefits, implementing newer tech will enable government to get a better handle on the wealth of information at its disposal.

“We have to modernise our infrastructure; we still have a lot of legacy, and we still have a lot of risk in our legacy platforms,” she said. “But we have a lot of opportunity as well; do we really understand where our data is?”


Sam Trendall

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