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Government departments are exploring new tech, according to GDS report

A GDS-commissioned report has found artificial intelligence and blockchain are the most popular among emerging technologies in government, but projects are often done in silos and departments risk “reinventing the wheel”

Government departments have begun testing new technologies, but often do so in silos and risk reinventing the wheel unless there is better oversight, a review has found.

The independent review, commissioned by the Government Digital Service (GDS), surveyed tech leaders across departments, arm’s-length bodies and local authorities to find out how they were getting to grips with technology innovation. 

It found that there are a range of technologies currently being explored or piloted across departments and local councils, including artificial intelligence (AI), deep learning, robotic process automation (RPA), distributed ledgers and biometrics.  

This includes projects at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Met Office and the Ordnance Survey, which are all looking at augmented reality. The Home Office, Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Environment Agency are also all looking at the potential for wearables to capture a range of data. 

Often these projects are part of the departments or agencies’ digital transformation programmes or manifesto commitments, the report said.

“Departments are exploring new technologies using prototypes, proofs of concepts and pilots to create better public services, improve internal processes and see what’s possible,” the report said.

“Some departments have set up dedicated innovation and data labs to do this on a small scale. Centres of excellence are established to provide guidance and best practice for a specific area or technology focus.”

Experimenting with new technologies in government services and underlying processes is often seen as a risk.

“The technologies may be untested, have no technology standards in place or are unable to scale. The stated benefits are not always clear and there can be a perception of new technology being a panacea,” it said.

“The scale of experimentation also carries different risks. Testing a new technology to improve a small back office process is different to deploying disruptive technologies like AI or distributed ledger technology in frontline services. Examples collected during the research range from low risk, low impact to high risk, high impact.”

However, there is also risk attached to doing nothing, the report added.

AI and blockchain focus

The two most popular technologies in government are AI and blockchain, which both have “potentially wide-ranging process, policy and regulatory impacts on automation, identity, decision making, privacy, security and trust,” according to the report.  

However, although several departments are investigating the use of the two technologies, they are “often doing so independently and in a piecemeal fashion”.

“Some visibility and coordination from the centre would be helpful. It would reduce the risks of departments reinventing the wheel and repeating past mistakes,” it said.

There are already AI and blockchain communities of interest groups in place that are dealing with the silo issue, as well as the Office for AI, but the report said GDS should do more to support and resource coordination and facilitate efforts from the centre to join up.

One example where coordination of projects could minimise duplication and enable other departments and local councils to reuse the projects include voice assistant access. This is being piloted across the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), GDS, Public Health England, the Met Office, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and a range of local councils.  

The report also set out a set of recommendations for GDS on how to take its work with departments forward. This includes GDS developing a cross-government technology innovation strategy by the fourth quarter of the 2018-19 financial year, which should be aligned with other government strategies.  

It also calls on GDS to take on more of a leadership role in centres of excellence, as well as scaling the GDS and Digital Data and Technology (DDAT), AI and emerging technologies development programme.

GDS is also leading a cross-government GovTech programme, which “asks tech companies to make innovative use of emerging technologies to solve public sector challenges”. 

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