This year saw the appointment of a new minister for implementation within the Cabinet Office, Oliver Dowden, who declared that the government must adopt new technology, embrace innovation and make the delivery of public services as easy and convenient for citizens to use as those of the private sector.
Now those of you, like me, who have engaged over the years with the provision of digital solutions and innovation to government might be forgiven for thinking: “Here we go again.” And you would be right that there are still many challenges to overcome. But as Dowden’s first year concludes, as Ian Dury might have said, there are reasons to be cheerful.
These include the progress that has been made in recent years by government leaders embracing new digital approaches, the real focus on user experience at all levels of public service, and significant initiatives in skills and capability within departments and agencies. Many of these initiatives have been led by the Government Digital Service (GDS), but as our own TechUK surveys have shown, they are being adopted broadly across the public service community.
Further encouragement came when TechUK recently hosted an “innovation morning” with the minister. Working with GDS, we convened a group of tech leaders, predominantly SMEs but also including larger companies, to explore the opportunities and challenges of bringing new and emerging technologies into public service delivery.
Dowden outlined his ambition to produce an Innovation Strategy in spring 2019, recommending practical steps over the short and medium term to ensure the government can make the most of next-generation tech.
He singled out knowledge and understanding of the art of the possible as key issues to focus on. When government is well informed about tech issues, it is much more likely to deliver for citizens and businesses alike.
Dowden accepted that government may not always be at the frontier of technology adoption, but he wants to be a fast follower and has enlisted GDS to address the government’s knowledge gaps proactively.
Julian David, TechUK
He set the scene by saying that GDS will work with industry to understand the opportunities that emerging tech presents; the current blockers to realising that potential; and, crucially, how to penetrate the hype and separate the signal from the noise.
If tech experts and government work together at an early stage in policy formulation, we should be able to come up with a strategy that makes so-called “govtech” work for citizens, for public services, and for business.
With the scene set, the session then became an open discussion on what was needed to make the strategy effective. First, it is clear that the opportunities around emerging technologies in government are enormous.
For example, early public sector adopters of artificial intelligence (AI) have already gained value by reducing demand on services, improving efficiencies, and meeting rising citizen expectations while freeing up time to focus on core tasks. Local government, in particular, is leading the way in its adoption and understanding the value of AI in transforming services for citizens.
It is increasingly apparent in the UK – where we shop, access services (public and private) and conduct our financial lives online – that a secure and trusted digital identity is key to achieving a digitally driven UK. Digital ID systems, which enable people to verify who they are digitally, provide an opportunity to harness tech to empower citizens and reduce duplication.
The government should be the sole authority when it comes to conferring legal identity, but private sector involvement is needed to develop the best possible technology. Distributed ledger technology such as blockchain also has the potential to transform the delivery of public services, by redefining the relationship between government and citizen in terms of data sharing.
This, combined with other technologies, can enable more efficient and less costly use of publicly held data, connecting currently siloed datasets.
These are just some of the many technologies that will transform public service delivery. But to make the most of them, we need to work together to overcome the identifiable blockers to innovation and tech adoption – and our discussion moved on to that next.
For example, it is a constant frustration to TechUK members that they are often unable to champion the good work they are doing in the public sector. It would be an unmitigated benefit if government could work with industry to identify and champion govtech successes.
Currently, there is no single competent authority for age or identity verification and no one specific standard for interoperability. Following the recent announcement on Verify, government should provide clarity as to how and when the work of joining up private sector expertise and public identity data sources – such as DVLA and the Passport Office – will be taken forward.
Familiar blockers remain
Another blocker to innovation is data. The public sector holds a vast amount of data, and the more it can open it up, the more tech companies can innovate. It is gratifying that the minister gets the point that simply “fly-tipping” data is far from optimal – data must be shared in meaningful and appropriate ways.
And, of course, the familiar blockers remain: digital skills within government, and the need to ensure the commercial profession in Whitehall understands how to procure emerging technologies; sight of, and access to, new ideas and capabilities; legacy issues; and the very real challenge of instilling a culture of innovation in a sector where failure comes at such a cost.
This session was the first of several that the minister is organising, and we have agreed with GDS on a plan of action going forward. I left with renewed enthusiasm, convinced that the government is addressing the issue of emerging tech in the public sector strategically and is engaging with the tech industry with an open mind.
It is my ambition that the UK should become as well known for govtech as it is for fintech, and TechUK looks forward to supporting the minister in delivering an action-oriented strategy to ensure this becomes reality.