Daniel - stock.adobe.com
It has been a year dominated by the UK’s looming exit from the European Union (EU), with departments struggling to tackle the vast amounts of new technology projects and systems required by a potential Brexit, while the government itself has equally struggled to decide what Brexit actually means, and whether or not it will actually happen.
The turmoil caused by a potential EU exit has been felt across government, with several Cabinet reshuffles, ministers resigning and swapping posts and budgets under strain. In the wider public sector, local government organisations banded together to sign a Local Digital Declaration, and police IT continued to struggle.
It has certainly been an eventful year, and with the official Brexit date looming in early 2019, next year is likely to be anything but boring.
Here are Computer Weekly’s top 10 public sector IT stories of 2018:
Brexit preparations have been one of the biggest challenges of 2018. From a technology perspective, Brexit is one of the largest government IT programmes ever to get off the ground. It requires huge changes, myriad new systems, and strong (and stable) leadership. With 30 of the 85 IT systems at the UK border needing to be replaced or changed, needless to say this has not been easy for the government to get to grips with.
Continuing the Brexit theme, in October the National Audit Office found that 11 of the 12 “critical systems” at the border were at risk of not being delivered on time. Should the UK leave the EU without a deal – something that is perhaps becoming increasingly likely – not having the technology ready has significant implications for border crossings, data sharing and security.
It was a significant year for the government’s flagship identity assurance programme. A decision was finally made to end government investment in Gov.uk Verify and hand over the reins to the private sector. The news came as the Infrastructure and Projects Authority recommended terminating the project, and identity policy moving from the Government Digital Service (GDS) to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
At the end of November, a very telling Science and Technology Committee hearing on GDS confirmed that the organisation was struggling. Giving evidence to the committee, former GDS deputy director Tom Loosemore candidly shared his views on GDS, including that there was a lack of political priority around it, that the organisation no longer provided strong support to departments, and that it had simply lost its momentum and strong leadership.
Amidst the Brexit negotiations, chancellor Philip Hammond published the 2018 Budget. It promised £1.6bn to fund “advanced technologies”, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, £200m for rural broadband and £150m for tech fellowships, but, most controversially, plans to impose a digital services tax on the web giants. The tax, which will come into force in April 2020, will only apply to firms with a global revenue of more than £500m a year, and should contribute £400m a year to the UK economy by 2022-23.
Universal Credit was supposed to be the holy grail of welfare reform. Using modern technology to make it easier for the UK public by replacing six benefits and tax systems with one all-singing and dancing system, but in reality it has been a bit of a shambles. In the spring, documents released under freedom of information laws finally shed some light on the details of the controversial programme.
In July, something huge happened in local government: the Local Digital Declaration was launched. The declaration, a joint initiative between the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) and the GDS, was co-published by more than 50 local authorities, central government departments and partner organisations. The declaration aims to “co-create the conditions for the next generation of local public services, where technology is an enabler rather than a barrier to service improvements, and services are a delight for citizens and officials to use”.
Police technology came under fire again this year. The Home Affairs Committee published a damning report, highlighting that most forces struggle with out-of-date technology and poor digital capabilities. The committee said it had “serious concerns about the police service’s digital capabilities, including the skills base of officers and staff and the technological solutions available to them”. Criticism of police tech is not a new thing. In a report in April 2017, chief inspector of constabulary Thomas Winsor said public safety was being “imperilled” by a lack of functional and interoperable IT used by the police.
As part of the many musical chairs played by ministers in 2018, Theresa May’s July Cabinet reshuffle saw Matt Hancock leave the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for pastures green at the Department for Health and Social Care. Stepping into his shoes at DCMS was Jeremy Wright, MP for Kenilworth and Southam, who previously served as attorney general.
Computer Weekly revealed in February that DCMS and the Cabinet Office were engaged in a heated discussion over the future of digital identity policy, and in June it was confirmed that the Cabinet Office had lost the policy to DCMS, only a few months after also losing responsibility for data policy to the same department. This was widely seen as a diminishing of GDS’s role in government, but the organisation itself claimed this was not the case.