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Interview: Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock on digital government

The government’s minister for digital reform talks about creating a Digital Leadership Academy, learning valuable lessons, and his love for open data

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With a larger budget than ever before, the Government Digital Service (GDS) is on a mission to transform government services and departments from analogue to digital, something Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock is “incredibly excited about”.

Speaking to Computer Weekly at GDS’s annual event Sprint 16, Hancock says he wants to break down the silos and change the way government operates, not just focusing on “a few transactions, but using digital, technology and data to improve all of the services we provide”.

“We’re on a journey,” he says, from a government that was behind the times to increasingly using digital services. He hopes that by the end of this parliament, we will have a government where “digital delivery of public services is standard practice,” he says.

“The job of GDS is to provide the thought leadership, but also to challenge and support all parts of government, so that people know about the best technology, the best standards and techniques and also so the questions are asked of where we can do better.”

GDS’s £450m budget over the course of this parliament will have to deliver efficiency savings ahead of its funding.

Computer Weekly revealed last year that £3.5bn in savings is expected in return, with the money mainly being spent on common technology services (CTS), where it hopes for a £1.1bn in savings, government-as-a-platform (GaaP), delivering £1.3bn in savings and the Gov.uk Verify identity scheme saving GDS another £1.1bn.

While the funding was welcome, Hancock understands that the task ahead is not an easy job. With GDS aiming to turn up the pace and the volume of digital services, there are many hurdles that need jumping.

Closing the skills gap

One of the biggest challenges, highlighted by the National Audit Office report late last year, is that there is a big digital skills gap in government.

 The NAO survey found that funding, cultural issues, career paths and cross-government competition “are all perceived to have a negative impact on developing staff and improving capability and capacity.”

The skills problem has been apparent in large government IT programmes, such as the rural payments digital service, where the the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was expected to provide systems integration skills to bring the different elements of the programme together. However, it “did not have the necessary skills in-house and did not know how to obtain them”.

Matt Hancock, Cabinet Office minister

"One of the things I’ve learnt about digital projects is that a way to ensure they get completed successfully is not to put a date on them"

Matt Hancock, Cabinet Office minister

Hancock says the government is “constantly learning lessons in how to do these things better”.

“There are big lessons for how to run digital services from the last 20 years,” he says. “One lesson is don’t let huge long contracts and then forget about them; instead let more smaller contracts and manage them actively. Another lesson is don't put an unnatural deadline on a project, rather keep iterating it and improving it.

“Another is to design something in an agile way from the start so you can alter it when it interacts with reality in the delivery. Always focus on the user need.”

He calls these his four key principles, and adds that there is no easy answer.  “We try to keep a state of mind of constantly learning and improving,” he says.

Digital leadership

In fact, Hancock is working hard to tackle the skills gap. Last year, he launched “lunchtime coding clubs” for civil servants to develop opportunities for “civil servants to roll up their sleeves and get stuck into data”.

Now he is planning the launch of a Digital Leadership Academy: “To make sure that we train people in how to run digital projects, and crucially where we can take the lessons from both successful and unsuccessful projects”.

The academy will be for everyone running digital projects: “Both people with digital backgrounds and the people with the policy and business delivery backgrounds, and others from outside,” Hancock says.

“You can learn a lot from how things are done from other governments and private sector.”

Ultimately, he says, “the best experience is to be part of a digital transformation”.

Hancock also recently announced a GDS digital advisory board which includes experts from retail, digital, data and technology sectors. The board will meet quarterly to advise and challenge the government to deliver “better services for users and evaluate how emerging digital technology trends can be applied to public services”.

“Their job is to keep us on our toes and to show direction and leadership, and to challenge and support us as we challenge and support the rest of government,” Hancock says.

Open data

Another passion of Hancock’s is open data. “I love it,” he exclaims. The government has just announced a new piece of work on creating open data sources, or “canonical registers”, ensuring data is stored once, and kept up to date centrally.

The first register is on the different countries in the world. There are currently seven different lists of countries floating around government, but that will soon be cut down to one, held by the Foreign Office, which will be responsible for that list.

“Another example is the register of what companies exist in the UK. It's reasonable to have one register of which companies exist, so that's another example of the sorts of areas we can go,” he says.

“Ultimately it's about creating a modern data infrastructure in government and holding it securely.”

How quickly these canonical registers will be deployed, Hancock is tight lipped about. “In due course,” he says.

“One of the things I’ve learnt about digital projects is that a way to ensure they get completed successfully is not to put a date on them, because you want to drive the project to successful conclusion rather than force it to an unnatural death,” he adds.

Read more about the Government Digital Service:

GDS will provide the tools and support for departments to build services, but “won’t build them all” for them

Government's Verify identity assurance system is set to move from beta to live in April, three years after its original target date

The government wants to move towards a 'data culture' to make better spending decisions, says minister responsible for digital reform, Matt Hancock

Hancock is committed to open data and told the audience at Sprint 16: “We need to make sure that where we have data sets they are open where possible, but where we choose for good reason for them to be restricted that is what happens.”

Explaining further to Computer Weekly, Hancock says that although the government has released more than 20,000 datasets so far, quality is more important than quantity.

“The quality matters. Making sure that they are mashable, machine readable and not published in PDFs is important,” he says.

"So yes, we are expanding the numbers and that’s driving ahead, but at the same time we have to make sure they’re kept accurate and up to date and that they are held securely.”

Remarkably, he adds, there is very little resistance to publishing the data.

“People have seen the impact of open data to improve services and so there's a very strong agenda there,” he says.

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