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Top 10 government IT stories of 2019

Computer Weekly looks back at the main stories related to government IT this year

The IT agenda in the public sector has been a whirlwind in 2019, with central government departments rushing to get systems and internal teams ready for the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU).

Some departments claimed to be able to get things ready for Brexit as best as they could, as was the case at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), one of the most affected. Others, such as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), said they would have to make do with existing systems rather than replacing them. As far as business as usual goes, other high-profile projects, such as plagued identity service Verify, were deemed unachievable.

Aside from Brexit-related matters, progress around the UK public sector agenda around IT was affected, especially when it came to progress around the National Data Strategy and the appointment of senior leadership – despite the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) moves towards year end to take control of areas such as data policy.

With all this in mind, here’s a look back over Computer Weekly’s top 10 government IT stories of 2019.

1. Government tries to recruit senior IT roles

Concerns over the lack of a government chief data officer (CDO) have been voiced for some time as Whitehall has failed to make significant progress on the data policy (see General Election affects National Data Strategy, below). This was due to a number of reasons, including lack of conditions for the recruitment to take place, according to civil service chief executive John Manzoni. The search for a CDO was finally relaunched in September 2019.

Another key role for which the Cabinet Office has launched a recruitment exercise is a more senior, permanent-secretary level role of chief digital and information officer (CDIO), designed to restore strategic, unified leadership of the digital, data and technology agendas.

Meanwhile, in a move to take over control of the data agenda, the DCMS appointed its first head of data policy in November 2019. Stephen Lorimer, formerly smart London strategy and delivery officer at the Greater London Authority. Lorimer will be key to enabling DCMS to develop central government data policy – a responsibility which was taken from the Cabinet Office and Government Digital Service (GDS).

2. General Election affects National Data Strategy

As the UK government attempts to drive a range of initiatives around making more effective use of data in citizen services delivery and in its own operations, this year’s General Election caused the postponement of all events to guide the government’s vision for the National Data Strategy (NDS).

Even before the election, a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) noted that little progress had been made on the creation of the NDS as resources were being diverted to Brexit.

The NAO highlighted the main issues and recommendations to solve them, with three areas that need to be addressed to achieve success: strategy and leadership; management infrastructure; and broader enablers to make better use of data.

It noted that there was no uniform approach to data across government. Legacy systems is another key issue, which makes data extraction and sharing of data difficult and there is a lack of understanding of cross-departmental needs, the report said, adding that obtaining such insight was essential prior to commissioning data projects.

3. London Office of Technology and Innovation launches in ‘willing and able’ local authorities

The summer of 2019 saw the launch of the London Office for Technology and Innovation (LOTI), with boroughs across the capital pledging to collaborate on speeding up technology-led advances underpinning the delivery of local service provision.

LOTI, a digital coalition funded by the Greater London Authority and London Councils, is led by Eddie Copeland, former director of government innovation at Nesta. It aims to enable faster scaling of technology, data and skills across the city’s public services by developing an environment where innovation and collaboration are more likely to happen.

The organisation anticipated that boroughs that see themselves as leading lights in digital transformation would be more likely to be interested, even though this isn’t presented as a barrier or a qualification hurdle. Such boroughs include Hackney Council, which, along with Camden and Greenwich formed the core founding group starting the initiative.

4. Furman Review and CMA investigate competition in the tech sector

A government review of sector giants published in March 2019 stated that large technology firms such as Google, Amazon and Facebook should face more competition so opportunities of the UK digital economy can be unlocked.

The final report was the result of an expert panel led by former US president Barack Obama’s chief economic advisor, Jason Furman. The review was commissioned by former chancellor Philip Hammond in 2018.

Following the Furman Review, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched a consultation into online platforms and the digital advertising market in the UK as part of government efforts to encourage greater competition for technology companies.

According to the Furman Review, the CMA should be able to block future acquisitions of digital companies if it found that the downsides of removing a competitor from the market outweighed any benefits, and also be informed about intended acquisitions by large companies.

5. UK introduces world’s first online safety regulations

The world’s first framework designed to hold internet companies accountable for the safety of those using their services, as well to tackle potential harm to users, was launched in April 2019.

The Online Harms whitepaper was a joint proposal from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Home Office, which determines that social media and technology companies take “reasonable steps” to protect their customers from threats stemming from their offerings.

A consultation on the proposals set out in the paper ran from 8 April to 1 July, and the DCMS is analysing the feedback received. Later in 2019, the government announced that it would increase investment to support its aim of tackling child online harms.

6. Government shelves age verification plans for online porn

After a series of delays and a major administrative blunder, the government announced that plans to introduce age verification to access online pornography would not go ahead.

Since the publication of the Online Harms whitepaper in April, the government backtracked on one of the elements of its plans to protect children from inappropriate content on the internet, which was the introduction of age verification for online porn.

The decision to drop age verification for good followed an error by the DCMS, which failed to make an essential notification to the European Commission (EC) when laying out the guidance to sites.

Provisions around protecting children from inappropriate content on the internet are now to become part of wider regulations.

7. Government Digital Service relevance is fading, says Commons Committee

A report into the government's ability to deliver digital change across Whitehall noted that the departure of key senior figures in the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service (GDS) meant that the role of the GDS was now unclear and lacking in authority to carry out the digital work required.

The report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that followed an enquiry into the government’s ability to drive its digital ambitions stated that national digital momentum had slowed.

To address the current situation, the report called for the appointment of ministerial digital champions in every Whitehall department and advised the GDS to “revisit its purpose”.

8. Verify deemed ‘unachievable’ by major government projects review

The government’s flagship identity service, Verify, was deemed “unachievable” by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) in its annual report of high-profile government projects.

The document covered 130 of the most complex and high-risk projects under the Government Major Projects Portfolio (GMPP), and Verify was flagged “red”.

According to a Public Accounts Committee report published earlier in 2019, Verify “failed its users” and had not delivered value for money, and its leaders had not accepted “proper accountability” for the project’s “catalogue of problems”.

Also on Verify, the system’s architects the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Cabinet Office said they were “hopelessly optimistic” in its original business case.

9. HMRC fails to get new customs system ready for Brexit

As Whitehall departments scrambled to get systems ready for a no-deal Brexit, a National Audit Office report revealed that HMRC opted for a multimillion-pound enhancement of a legacy platform rather than working on its planned replacement.

HMRC will be using its legacy platform, Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (Chief), if the UK leaves the EU without a deal. This is because the replacement, the Customs Declarations Service (CDS), wasn’t able to support increased volumes of goods moving under transit arrangements and requiring checks.

10. How Defra is getting its IT systems ready for Brexit

The department most affected by Brexit, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), built 11 new cloud-based IT services to support EU exit within 18 months. That is despite fears over Defra’s ability to deliver the IT required in time.

These systems focus on trade, specifically relating to the UK borders, and are among the most crucial for the department. On the other end of the telescope, there are systems relating to exports.

In addition, Defra built an EU Exit delivery team, which, at its peak, had just over 500 people spread across various locations in the UK

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