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Senior civil servants address TechUK smarter state theme

Senior government officials spoke at a TechUK “smarter state” event, revealing ambitious AI policy alongside a “back to basics” drive to get data right

Government technology strategy was shown to be infused with AI optimism, but tempered by “do the basics right” realism at a TechUK event in London yesterday.

Senior civil servants, including Sue Owen, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Helen Walker, chief technology officer, the Department for Education, and Dave Perry, chief technology officer, the DVLA spoke at the one-day conference.

Sue Owen, at DCMS is on her sixth Secretary of State – the fifth, Matt Hancock having taken up a new ministerial brief as Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Care. DCMS took ownership of government policy with respect to data this year. She provided attendees of where the department has got to with data and with artificial intelligence (AI).

“At the DCMS we’re responsible for digital policy regarding the whole economy. And since the spring of this year, we’ve had responsibility for data policy as well, that will work its way into the digital strategy as a whole,” she said.

“On AI, it is one of the four grand challenges in the government’s industrial strategy. But we are already known across the world as a place where AI can thrive. We’ve got the world’s best AI company in the form of DeepMind and the OECD sees us as a leader in the use of AI in government itself.

“We think AI could add 10% to UK GDP by 2030, if it is adopted, and could add 30% to productivity.

“We’ve established the Office for Artificial Intelligence, with Demis Hassabis [founder and CEO of Google’s DeepMind] as an advisor. And we’ve got Wendy Hall advising on skills.”

Ethical concerns

Owen acknowledged public concerns about the ethics of AI and the ethical use of data. “We do need good governance in place, so we have established a new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, with Roger Taylor, cofounder of Dr Foster, a provider of healthcare data management and analysis, as the chair.”

Owen said they are presently putting together a multidisciplinary board to advise the centre, including lawyers, philosophers, data scientists, religious leaders and economists.

She added that the government has also published its own data ethics framework, including advice on procuring advanced analytics software.

Users first in education

For the Department for Education, Helen Walker said they have a three to five-year strategy for digital technologies that puts users in the sector first.

“We feel we’ve got the foundations right in terms of infrastructure and our focus is now on the users. Our sector is huge and varied. We’ve got 22,000 state schools, 259 FE colleges, 1.3 million children in early years’ education, and so on. So our challenge is to have coherent service for that user base. That means moving away from investing in what I would call kaleidoscopic projects with point solutions to platforms.”

She also said that, while the Government Digital Service has a role as a “guiding light” across all government departments, “let’s see people [in the departments] lead the way”.

Dave Perry from the DVLA said the agency’s situation was the inverse of the DfE’s, in that they had spent a lot of time focused on frontline services, on the basis of back-end technology that is some 28 years old. He also said he is seeing more and more knowledge sharing across government departments, with communities of practice emerging from the bottom up, and IT professionals referring each other to repositories on GitHub, and the like.

DDATs in government

In a panel entitled Civil Service 2.0: Empowering public servants with digital skills, David Dilley, deputy director for Capability, the Government Digital service, said the DDAT profession was developing well across government. DDAT is a government acronym for “digital, data and technology”.

He said that the higher pay scale for DDAT professionals – compared with generalist civil servants – is “welcome”. And that there is developing a culture of moving in and out of the civil service, rather than seeing it as a job for life. “There will be attrition, especially among software developers. But they can come back later in their careers,” he said.

However, he added: “We don’t yet have a Permanent Secretary who has come up via the technology route, and that will need to change.”

Dilley also said that while the DCMS has indeed taken ownership of data policy, the GDS still has data scientists in its team, and that the DCMS has, in any case, a different agenda in terms of digital and data in the economy.

Gavin Freeguard, director of data and transparency at the Institute for Government think tank, says their view is that there is a need to refocus on cross-government “functional leadership” in respect of data and digital.

“Across the civil service, it is not just about building skills and capabilities in individual departments, but it’s also about functions such as HR, commercial, policy-making, and data and technology which span the entire service.

“We recommended recently to clarify the headship of the data and technology function across government, and that that be represented on the Civil Service Board. Otherwise, senior leaders can get carried away by things like artificial intelligence without really understanding them. It is up to techies to help senior leaders to ‘get tech’, and not just say ‘they don’t get it’.”

Read more about government data strategy and policy

In respect of data, he said, above all government “needs to get the basics right. What are we talking about when we say ‘data’? It means so many different things across government, from workforce management information to personal data that enables citizens to access services.

“We need to take a step back and think about what we are talking about, and to ask those big questions about the data you need to run a government in 2018 or 2028,” said Freeguard. “Data is for everybody. AI and robotics are really exciting, but if we haven’t got the data infrastructure, the plumbing right, it won’t work out. You can’t just put data scientists in front of petabytes of unstructured data, and hope they can wave a magic wand.”

A similar point was made in another panel by Theo Blackwell chief digital officer of the Mayor of London’s office, when he said the London is seen as a smart city leader worldwide because of the achievements of TfL [Transport for London] while the messy reality is of London boroughs with data that is not sufficiently joined up across the city.

He disclosed that his team are about to unveil a new update on the “London smarter together” strategy. For example, he said that the multiplicity of parking applications in London illustrated an institutional resistance to having a London wide system.

Blackwell was speaking on a panel on how technology can be used to support and empower citizens. And he gave as an example of one idea that could have a big impact on creating a smarter city use of “the humble lamp-post. The lamppost is an asset that is owned by the state.

“It could be used for charging electric vehicles, for 5G and public wi-fi, and for deploying air-quality sensors,” he said. “There are roughly 20,000 lampposts in every London Borough. We are leading a project on behalf of other European cities to create a framework for the renewal of the lamppost. This creates a market between the state and the technology sector.

“It provides the opportunity for the state to act as a broker because once you introduce sensors into public assets, you are setting up a conversation among citizens about what is happening to their data. This will all happen at a city level of over next three or four years.”

Read more on IT for government and public sector

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