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In her first speech on digital government since she was given ministerial responsibility for the digital agenda across Whitehall, Cabinet Office parliamentary under-secretary Caroline Nokes said the government is ramping up its work on digital services.
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Speaking at the Institute for Government (IfG), Nokes said the government is working hard to deliver better public services, including 40 major transformation programmes, such as the digital reform of the court system.
“We expect that, in total, these programmes will deliver £71.1bn worth of savings over their lifespans,” she said. “By 2020, we will have delivered at least 89 digital services, including a new digital mortgage service and an online divorce service.”
Nokes said that in the past, Whitehall has spent “a lot of time playing catch-up”, before emerging as a leader in digital government, and the job now is “to ensure government’s content can be accessed and reused by any technology, such as voice assists like Siri and Alexa”.
“We are now taking steps to formalise how we handle innovation and approach new technologies,” she said.
Earlier this year, former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who set up the Government Digital Service (GDS) in 2011, accused the civil service of having an “innovation-hostile culture” and a “bias to inertia”.
Nokes said Maude had a vision of GDS being set up as a disruptor, and that it has “broadly come of age” now.
“I am very conscious that GDS works with all different government departments, I think it is fair to say some more than others,” she said, “and I think it is also fair to say that, at the current time, we have some departments that are under more pressure than others.
“I think my focus is very much on making sure GDS has the ability to work specifically with the Department for Exiting the EU to make sure they have the tools they need to deliver as smooth a decision as possible.” Nokes added that she is “not going to pretend that’s easy”.
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Nokes also addressed one of the most scrutinised GDS projects – the Gov.uk Verify identity assurance platform. The government has committed to 25 million users of the service by 2020, making it the standard way of people proving who they are when using government services online, but only about 1.5 million accounts have been created so far.
Figures show that only 15 digital services use Verify, with an average of only 46% of people using those services being able to successfully create a verified identity. Of those who do manage to create an ID, 37% on average are then able to access the digital service they want to use.
When asked by IfG’s programme director, Daniel Thornton, whether she thought the government would be able to meet its target of 25 million users, Nokes said: “We have to look at digital identity as an absolute imperative in the 21st century.
“I am completely candid – there are challenges with Verify, but actually we have done good work so far. What we do know is that there isn’t an off-the-shelf product that you can simply buy and we’ve done a phenomenal amount on the path to digital identity with Verify, but it’s not an end in itself, it’s about the access to services that a digital identity will give people.”
Nokes added that she had timed her own process of getting through Verify, which took her six minutes and 10 seconds. “I acknowledge that it’s not for everyone, but we need to go down the path of digital identity for citizens,” she said.
Nokes added that Whitehall needs to find better ways to “hook into” the data held by local government, which could potentially be used for Verify.