In the second part of our round-up of the most-read pieces published over this year, we revisit the stories that shaped the second half of 2023, from July to December
Credit for all pictures: Pixabay
Our most-read story from the second half of the year concerns something that is not expected to happen until the start of the next decade.
Pending updates to legislation will give the Department for Work and Pensions powers to monitor the bank accounts of millions of benefit recipients. Plans have been made to test the data-sharing with two – unspecified – banks or building societies in 2025, with a full-scale rollout across all institutions from 2030 onwards.
Once the new data-sharing regime is up and running, the DWP expects that the measures will lead to 7,400 extra prosecutions for fraud each year, about one third of which will require legal aid support, and 250 of which will result in custodial sentences, according to government’s impact assessment.
The proposed new powers have been subject to much controversy and concern, with ministers claiming that “will only impact a minority of people” and “only minimal information will ever be shared” by financial institutions.
Despite such reassurances, the proposals still have a number of critics, among the most vociferous of which is privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch.
In a policy analysis document, the organisation said that “there are already multiple powers” on the statute books that allow government to identify and tackle potential benefit fraud.
“Big Brother Watch finds it wholly inappropriate for the UK government to order private banks, building societies and other financial services to conduct mass, algorithmic, suspicionless surveillance and reporting of their account holders on behalf of the state in pursuit of its policy aims,” it added.
Just a few days into July came one of the biggest stories of the second half of the year, as we reported that HM Revenue and Customs had signed a £100m deal with Deloitte to serve as the major technology partner for the unified post-Brexit digital system to support all of traders’ interactions with government.
The Single Trade Window project – which forms part of the government’s wider 2025 UK Border Strategy – is intended to provide traders with a single digital platform through which they can submit information once only, with data then shared, as required, between all relevant teams and agencies.
Work on the project is being led by HMRC but, in a commercial notice announcing the Deloitte contract award, the department said that “the STW programme is a cross-government project and priority [and] all departments and agencies that have a presence at the border are engaged as key delivery partners”.
STW began offering its first digital services in summer 2021 and tools featured on the platform currently include online guidance services for both importers and exporters. Over the coming months and years, the plan is to ramp up the services offered via STW to encompass online import and export declarations and other instances of formal data submissions.
About a month ago the Cabinet Office announced that the civil service profession formerly known as DDaT has been rebranded as ‘Government Digital and Data’ function.
Government’s chief digital officer Mike Potter said that the move was intended to help the civil service “to ‘be viewed alongside tech giants” and recruit the most in-demand skills.
The rebrand comes following significant expansion of the profession in recent years, which now accounts for 28,000 people and 5% of the civil service total workforce – a proportion which has nearly doubled in the past five years.
Given this growth, government hopes the rebrand will enable greater recognition that it now represents “one of the largest employers of digital and data professionals in the UK, rivalling big tech companies in the competition for talent”.
Generative artificial intelligence in general, and ChatGPT in particular, have dominated tech headlines this year.
The spectre of the much-hyped AI tool also loomed over Whitehall, to the extent that government decided to publish formal guidance, including an instruction that the technology should not be used by civil servants to write policy papers or other formal documents.
The advice acknowledges that the likes of ChatGPT may have the capability to create apparently authentic messages, summaries of government’s future plans, or policy documents. But the document instructs officials that the technology must not be used to do so.
It does, however, tell officials that “with appropriate care and consideration, generative AI can be helpful and assist with your work”.
“You are encouraged to be curious about these new technologies, expand your understanding of how they can be used and how they work, and use them within the parameters set out within this guidance,” the document adds. “For all new technologies, we must be both aware of risks, but alive to the opportunities they offer us.”
Towards the end of a year of high-profile data breaches and cyber incidents two particularly serious attacks happened with a short timeframe, leading to days of disruption to services at two public sector bodies: the British Library; and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar – a local authority on the outer Hebridean island of Lewis. Both incidents prompted investigations by the National Cyber Security Centre.
The British Library’s website was unavailable for a period of weeks, and outages are also were suffered by other “online systems and services, as well as some onsite services including WiFi”.
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s IT systems and services remain impacted by what the authority has described as a “criminal cyber incident” that took place more than seven weeks ago.
The council’s head Martin Burr recently said “high-priority work” dedicated to data recovery is ongoing.
Part one of our round-up of the year’s biggest stories, covering the months of January to June, can be read here