Will Brexit stymie government’s digital transformation ambitions?

There’s rather a lot going on in government IT at the moment.

Last year’s ambitious transformation strategy set challenging aims of overhauling back-office systems across Whitehall, building an advanced data capability, and having 25 million users of the Gov.uk Verify digital identity system by 2020.

There’s the Universal Credit digital system being rolled out nationwide this year, despite concerns it’s not ready to cope with the scale of benefit applications. There’s the new digital tax system from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC). There are a whole bunch of aging, costly outsourcing deals to be wound down and replaced.

Oh, and there’s Brexit.

It’s increasingly clear that government does not have remotely enough capacity to do all these projects, and something is going to break. The cracks are already showing.

The demands of Brexit alone are already pushing the most-affected departments hard. MPs have already expressed concerns about the lack of progress on key digital systems that will need to be overhauled to cope with leaving the European Union.

The Public Accounts Committee has highlighted an urgent need for digital skills across Whitehall to cope with Brexit. That’s on top of the 4,000 extra IT staff previously identified as a priority for departments’ digital transformation plans.

Already, important projects are being scaled back. HMRC is stopping or delaying a number of digital initiatives to allow it to focus on the customs system overhaul needed for Brexit. The Government Digital Service (GDS) this week said that Brexit priorities are a major factor in the painfully slow roll-out of Verify – and that wider transformation plans are being affected too.

“[Departments are] worrying about EU exit, so we are frankly just not going to get hundreds of new services being digitised in the next year,” said GDS director Nic Harrison.

And despite years of promises that government was not going to renew its many bloated outsourcing deals, exactly that is happening because there’s too much else going on to explore alternatives.

Oliver Dowden, the latest minister to be put in charge of digital government, said this week he is confident the government will achieve end-to-end digital services for citizens by 2020, in line with the transformation strategy.

He’s dreaming if he believes that. And with all the uncertainty still about Brexit, government can’t even be sure it’s identified all the likely tech implications of whatever future relationship we will have with the EU.

There isn’t a magic digital skills tree from which Whitehall can pluck tech expertise. There are a lot of big IT companies sharpening their contract-signature pencils, and we all know what happens when they get too big a chunk of government IT work.

Nobody wants to see the pace of digital transformation held back in government, but it’s clear something has to change. The current IT workload will soon become unsustainable.

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