The biggest stories of 2018 – part one
We take a look back at the major developments that shaped the first half of the year
It is customary to begin year-end round-ups such as this by pointing out what an eventful year it has been.
And, if you’ve lived through the last 12 months in the UK, it would be hard to disagree that there has been quite a bit going on.
But, in some ways, 2018 has been a year of uncommon stability and continuity. (Bear with me…)
Considering that the year has included a football World Cup, the agreement of the – not universally popular – Brexit deal, and a data-harvesting scandal that rocked the world’s largest social network, it is perhaps rather remarkable that the England manager, the prime minister, and the Facebook CEO remain in place, and relatively unscathed.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as they say en France.
At the end of another busy year in the public sector technology space, we also find ourselves talking about many of the same things we were 12 months ago – the role of GDS, the battle to allow SMEs into government, the difficulties of data-sharing, the need to break public sector siloes, the impact of Brexit, and whether next-generation tech such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive analytics, and blockchain will prove a prompt for transformation – or just a lot of hot air and hype. Although at least we all seem to be hearing a lot less of the four-letter initialism that dominated many discussions this time last year: GDPR.
We may still be talking about such well-worn topics come next Christmas.
But beyond the familiar themes there will, as there always are, be many individual stories of transformation – and a few of catastrophe – across the gamut of the public sector, from the corridors of Whitehall to the frontlines of critical service provision.
Here’s a reminder of the stories that defined the public sector technology scene in 2018. To remind yourself of the full story, just click on the links embedded throughout the article.
The year was barely a week old when prime minister Theresa May announced a cabinet reshuffle that saw changes in both of the government’s top digital ministerial jobs. Caroline Nokes was moved from a Cabinet Office post that included oversight of GDS to a role as immigration minister. She was, effectively, replaced by Oliver Dowden (pictured below right). Digital minister Matt Hancock, meanwhile was promoted – not for the final time in 2018, it transpired – to become culture secretary. His previous brief was taken on by Margot James. David Lidington was made Cabinet Office minister, replacing Damian Green.
Another of 2018’s biggest stories followed hot on the heels of the ministerial rejig, when major government supplier Carillion collapsed in mid-January. Compared to other areas, the firm’s tech engagements were comparatively small-scale but, prior to going under, Carillion was involved in various projects related to the rollout of superfast broadband across the UK – a major government ambition. But the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was quick to assert that the company’s liquidation would have no more than a minimal impact on the implementation of high-speed internet.
The issue of government cybersecurity made national headlines towards the end of the month when, in an interview with the Guardian, National Cyber Security Centre director Ciaran Martin said that it is “a matter of when, not if” the UK suffers a major ‘category-one’ cyberattack. The most destructive attack to date – the WannaCry ransomware assault of 2017 – was only classed a category-two breach.
"We will be fortunate to come to the end of the decade without having to trigger a category-one attack," Martin said.
The opening month of 2018 ended with the publication of the Digital Charter, in which the government laid out its guiding principles for making the web a safer and more prosperous place for UK internet users.
“Our starting point will be that we will have the same rights and expect the same behaviour online as we do offline,” the government said.
February brought news that the NHS was to get a new medial leader for technology and informatic, with the appointment of Dr Simon Eccles as chief clinical information officer for NHS England and NHS Improvement. Eccles is the second person ever to hold the post, replacing professor Keith McNeil, who become the first NHS CCIO when the role was created in July 2016.
The D5 collective became the D7 in February, when the group compromising digital-government bodies from the UK, South Korea, Estonia, Israel, and New Zealand, welcomed Canada and Uruguay as new members. The expansion was formalised at a summit in Kiwi capital Wellington, attended by UK government national technology advisor Liam Maxwell – more of whom later.
The government announced in March that the launch of the tenth iteration of the G-Cloud framework would be brought forward, with bidding opening in April ahead of an early summer launch. The incumbent G-Cloud 9 had been given a 12-month extension to May 2019, and it had been expected that there would be a longer-than-usual gap between procurement exercises. The additional time was allotted to allow for work to take place on the construction of the Crown Marketplace buying platform. Later in the month, the Crown Commercial Service confirmed that the launch of the Digital Outcomes and Specialists 3 framework was also to be brought forward.
During 2018’s third month the national headlines were dominated by matters of data and technology, as news emerged of the shadowy acquisition of Facebook user data by marketing firm Cambridge Analytica. The Information Commissioner’s Office announced it would be examining the matter, and Damian Collins – chair of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee – began what would become a long-running campaign to compel Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to appear before MPs.
As the country headed into the Easter Weekend, PM Theresa May announced that responsibility for data policy, governance, and sharing across government was to be moved from GDS to DCMS. The department also took on policymaking operations in the area of digital signatures – which had previously resided in the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
The year’s second quarter saw UK and US officials unite to publicly “hold Russia to account” for a sustained cyber offensive, which included more than a year of attacks targeted at government and businesses. The campaign even included assaults on consumer routers, officials claimed.
In April there was a leadership rejig at GDS, with chief operating officer Alison Pritchard switched to a full-time role heading up the organisation’s Brexit-focused team, in a move that demonstrated the importance and urgency of Whitehall’s work to prepare for Brexit. Pritchard was later replaced, as COO by Fiona Deans who joined government from a post at public sector automation specialist Barbour Logic.
Speaking of Brexit preparations, there was incredulity when it emerged that the government app for EU nationals wishing to take part in the settlement scheme would not work fully on iPhones. The government pledged to work with tech firms “to ensure as many people as possible can use the app”. But, as we enter 2019, it is still only able to function fully on Android devices.
The artificial intelligence space was given a boost by the government’s AI Sector Deal published in April, which include funding packages totalling almost £1bn.
The government’s spend controls policy was given its fourth – and arguably most radical – reworking, with the introduction of a 15-month “pipeline” model which requires departments to maintain a clear plan of intended spending on digital and technology projects. The new-look spend controls take a lighter touch than previous versions, with departments permitted to effectively self-approve “business-as-usual” spending.
“Time and technology move on,” said GDS in explaining the changes. “This is a more agile, iterative model which will rely on and strengthen departments’ existing governance processes.”
One major tech deal signed this month was a £150m contract between Microsoft and the Department of Health and Social Care. One of the key elements of the deal was an agreement to install Windows 10 throughout the health service – and thereby banish the lingering spectre of Windows XP for good.
Announcing another large-scale technology rollout, chancellor Philip Hammond unveiled plans for every building in the UK to gain access to full-fibre internet within 15 years.
The issue of facial-recognition technology continued to generate controversy during May, with the publication of a report from Big Brother Watch that claimed the software makes inaccurate matches 19 times out of 20. But the forces that have trialled the technology so far defended its use, and disputed the findings of the privacy group’s report.
The first half of 2018 came to a close with news that London mayor Sadiq Khan wanted to transform the capital into the world’s smartest city. His plan to do so included the creation of user-designed services and a pledge to eradicate connectivity blackspots.
In central government, there was another shift of policy powers from GDS to DCMS, as the latter took on responsibility for policymaking in the area of digital identity.
One new policy coming out of the Cabinet Office in June was a pledge to include clauses in its procurement rules that require suppliers to demonstrate their “social value”. Minister David Lidington said the government wanted to see “public services delivered with values at their heart, where the wider social benefits matter and are recognised”.
Speaking of being recognised, Whitehall workers might have spotted a familiar face on television during the early part of the summer – as policy advisor Zara McDermott landed on Love Island. The 21-year-old previously worked at the then Department of Energy and Climate Change working on policy development in the area of renewable heating.
Look out on Monday for the second part of our annual round-up, running through the biggest stories from July to December
The body dedicated to upholding ethical standards across the public sector has published a major report examining how to ensure those standards are not threatened by AI and automation
Completing our 2019 round-up with the rundown of the five biggest stories of the year
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