Top 10 public sector IT stories of 2014

From a near-independent Scotland to continued problems with Universal Credit, it’s been a bumpy year for UK public sector IT

From a near-independent Scotland to continued problems with Universal Credit and an angry Microsoft, it’s been a bumpy year for UK public sector IT.

But there has been some positives from the doom and gloom – the Government Digital Service (GDS) continued to plough through its transformation programme, and other departments like the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) followed in its footsteps, coding away to create their own digital public services.

1. The IT risks facing Universal Credit

Universal Credit continued to make headlines in 2014. In December 2013 Ian Duncan Smith announced a new “twin-track” approach to resolve the IT problems that have so far led to £40m of IT work being scrapped and another £90m to be written off by the time Universal Credit goes fully live in 2017/18.

Under the new plan, work continues on the widely criticised IT system developed to support the Pathfinder pilot projects for the new benefits scheme, while an entirely separate development takes place to produce a new “end-state” system – which will be the software that supports the full nationwide roll-out.

But questions of skill shortages and software integration still leaves the success of the project in doubt.

2. Last council finally connects to PSN

The last remaining local authority finally transitioned onto the Public Services Network (PSN) in September – almost six months past the security compliance deadline, signalling that the controversy over compliance was at an end.

GDS took over the management of PSN in April after councils found themselves at loggerheads with the Cabinet Office over its prescriptive approach to compliance.

To connect to the PSN, public bodies – including local councils, government agencies and Whitehall departments – had to ensure their security connections were compliant with a code of connection (CoCo) set by the Cabinet Office. Organisations were given until 1 April 2014 to become CoCo compliant, but three local authorities missed the deadline.

3. What IT challenges would an independent Scotland face?

In the face of the Scottish referendum this summer, Computer Weekly investigated the IT challenges facing a potentially independent Scotland.

We calculated Scotland could have been faced with a bill of more than £1bn to replicate all the necessary Whitehall IT systems it would need in the event of independence. For calculations and explanations, visit the blog post on Management Matters.

4. Government open standards – the curious case of Microsoft and the minister

In July 2014, the UK government made a decision to commit to an open standard for sharing documents in the public sector.

The government chose Open Document Format (ODF) as its standard, but not without consistent lobbying from Microsoft which was pushing for the inclusion of Open XML (OOXML) – the standard used for its Word documents, but which critics say is not a truly open, supplier-independent format.

And an investigation by Computer Weekly revealed – according to well-placed sources – Microsoft turned to minister David Willetts to help its case, with the supplier’s global chief operating officer (COO) Kevin Turner getting involved. But neither the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills nor Willetts himself was willing to discuss the role the minister played in Microsoft's attempts to influence this obscure but vitally important part of government IT policy.

5. Is a local GDS the answer to local authority transformation? Lessons from the Labour digital review

The first insights into what digital reforms the Labour Party may include in its upcoming manifesto have been revealed in its Making Digital Government Work for Everyone report. The report made 35 recommendations in 122 pages on a wide variety of topics, from open digital architecture to shared data and the skills gap.

One area much speculated about in recent months is whether Labour would keep the coalition’s Government Digital Service (GDS) – the body tasked with digitally transforming public sector services.

And some critics have described GDS as too oriented towards Whitehall, leaving local authorities to struggle with digital public services. So it was unsurprising one of the review's 35 recommendations was to give GDS the remit to work with local government.

6. Land Registry digital project at risk after senior IT leaders depart

In the summer, Computer Weekly learnt a major digital project at Land Registry was at risk after two key executives on the programme left the organisation due to their tax arrangements.

The contracts of the digital project portfolio director Richard Lundie-Sadd and interim chief technology officer (CTO) Gordon McMullan were terminated by Land Registry on 15 August for failure to comply with government policy over staff tax status.

Both IT executives were closely involved with the LR Connect project which is aimed at transforming the Land Registry business strategy by developing new digital services and tools. A Computer Weekly source close to the project said up to £3m has been spent on the LR Connect project this financial year. 

7. Interview: Chi Onwurah, Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister

Computer Weekly spoke to the Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah about digital government.

While the current government has been making strides in creating digital public services, Onwurah is still worried about the proportion of the country who cannot or will not go online – a staggering 11 million people across the UK.

“I think digital has many advantages and digital engagement should always be available generally,” said Onwurah. “But to take those advantages and to make them the only option is to exclude many citizens.

“And digital is not always the most effective form of engagement,” she added, saying that in some circumstances citizens will want to report a problem in person and speak face to face, because it is more effective than going online. 

“People sometimes think the soft skills are just what they are, soft, but actually they can be much more effective ways of communicating,” she said.

8. Interview: 'Government is the best digital startup in London'

Computer Weekly met the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) chief digital officer (CDO) Paul Shetler in 2014 to talk about how the department has been digitising its public services.

From digitising the way you book a prison visit to simplifying the application for lasting power of attorney, the MOJ has been flying the flag for government transformation and is now one of the largest digital teams, after the Government Digital Service (GDS).

And the quality of the MOJ's services and products has caught the attention of other government departments and agencies, with requests from them to use the MOJ’s home-grown software.

“We’ve seen a lot of interest in reusing the callcentre software, which actually means software delivered by government, shared by government and used by other government agencies. It’s a virtuous thing – save money across the board,” said Shetler.

“Right now we’re discussing how we can more effectively share software between different agencies and departments,” he said. “We make all of our software available as open source – that’s policy.”

9. Will TechNorth be able to take on Tech City?

After the launch of the government-backed initiative Tech City in 2010, London has seen a boost from technology investment and jobs, with more than a quarter of the job growth in the city now coming from the technology and digital sector. But the rest of the country’s digital clusters have been finding it difficult to get as much traction.

But in October, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg launched the TechNorth cluster in Sheffield to support northern startups.

Clegg launched the initiative in Sheffield on 24 October to link Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Hull and the North East (Newcastle, Sunderland and the Tees Valley) to create a technology hub similar to that of Tech City in East London.

TechNorth will be part of of Tech City UK and, with its branding, hopes to attract northern investors to the area. Working with UK Trade and Investment, TechNorth will also support existing tech businesses and help them grow, while an unknown sum of funding will come from Whitehall.

10. DVLA partners with Tech Hub to launch Swansea startup incubator

November saw the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) partner with startup incubator Tech Hub to launch a new digital workspace in Swansea.

The Tech Hub building will allow startups to work alongside some of the DVLA digital and technology team who are digitising public services –  so people can view their driving licence online or register a personlised number plate, for instance.

The initiative is linked to Tech City and will be open to local startups and small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which will have the chance to be mentored by DVLA employees.

Government digital director Mike Bracken said the partnership between DVLA and Tech Hub was part of a change in government approach that is happening all over the country. He noted HM Revenue & Customs is working with different companies in Newcastle for the first time in a long time, as well as a big push by the Department for Work and Pensions to use hubs in the North West corridor, particularly around Leeds.

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