This article is part of our Essential Guide: Essential Guide: Digital transformation in the public sector

Government IT leaders on how Covid crisis will shape future delivery

At a TechUK Building the Smarter State event, government IT leaders shared their experience of the coronavirus crisis, and their thinking about how future service delivery will aim to be more joined-up for citizens

Government IT looks set to continue to be shaped by the accelerated pace of development sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic. The crisis has also shown state IT to be unduly reliant on legacy technology – but getting rid of that is more easily said than done.

These were among the themes that came out of TechUK’s Building the smarter state virtual event, which took place on 16 and 17 September.

Julia Lopez MP, parliamentary secretary to the cabinet and the minister responsible for the Government Digital Service (GDS) and Whitehall's digital, data and technology (DDaT) function, opened the event with a speech that included reference to an ambition for a single sign-on for all government online services. She also put out a plea for applicants for the government chief digital and information officer (CDIO) job that has been in the frame since 2017.

Lopez hailed the underlying work of GDS, set up in 2011, as a major factor in ensuring the “resilience of the digital infrastructure and the delivery of digital services at a time of national need”.

She added: “But the last seven months have also underlined the reform needed of government services so they are digital by default and more efficient. Now, more than ever, the public expect the same kind of seamless service from the government’s online systems as they receive from the best commercial sites. We need to do more to put citizens at the heart of public services.”

This requires overcoming fragmentation of services across government, sharing and using data better across Whitehall, and making organisational and leadership changes, said Lopez.

“At the moment, there are many different ways to sign on to government services, with people having to enter the same data again and again,” she said. “Our vision is for members of the public to access any online government service simply, safely and securely using a single sign-on.

“I recognise that creating a single sign-on is a complex task, in the light of concerns about privacy. The key point is user control.”

Lopez went on to say that putting in place the “right organisational structures and levers and addressing legacy IT issues” was critical to delivering more joined-up services for the public.

Part of that civil service reform has been a new division of labour between the Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), a “divide and conquer” approach, she said. “Responsibility for government data now sits with GDS and the Cabinet Office, while DCMS will boost the digital economy more widely,” she added.

Lopez also referred to the need to get beyond legacy IT and move more government IT to the cloud.

At the apex of this restructure and technology refresh will be a new government CDIO at permanent secretary level, she said. “This will be one of the largest IT roles in the world. Your government and your country needs you,” she told event delegates, drawing attention to the “fast approaching” closing date for applications.

In the trenches

In the government IT leaders panel that followed, Joanna Davinson, chief digital, data and technology officer at the Home Office, Craig Eblett, digital delivery director at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and Mark Denney, former chief digital and information officer at HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), brought to life government discourse about Covid-19 as a catalyst for technology acceleration and greater organisational agility.

All three recounted how many thousands of civil servants had evacuated their offices and started working from home in very short order. Eblett said it was like working in a distribution centre for PC World as they dispatched devices to some 34,000 staff who do not normally work from home.

Speaking more widely of the rapid changes the DWP has had to make, in tandem with HMRC, under the cosh of Covid, Eblett paid tribute to GDS, saying: “We could not have done what we did had it not been for the work done over the past five years.” Davinson, too, highlighted the value of GDS in bringing senior IT leaders in government together.

All three were asked by the panel chair, Faye Holt, head of strategic accounts, UK public sector at Amazon Web Services (AWS), what they saw as the next revolution in government IT, roughly a decade after the establishment of GDS.

(Not) talking about a revolution

Davinson said: “I’m not sure we need another revolution. It’s more about getting a better grip on data sharing.” Eblett agreed, adding: “There is no need to have a revolution about what we have to do, which is thinking differently about how we engage with citizens, putting them at the heart of services.”

Denney, whose term of office at HMRC coincided with the height of the pandemic, with the furlough scheme, "eat out to help out" and the rest, sounded a different note by saying that to get rid of technical debt would indeed be tantamount to a “revolution”.

The Home Office’s Davinson agreed about the importance of getting beyond legacy, but also had some cautionary points to make. The Police National Computer was set up in 1974, and is not something to be trifled with, she said, adding: “Legacy is still an operational system.”

Turning to recent IT work at the Home Office, Davinson flagged “digitising the customer experience, with e-gates, one of the best in the world, the digital passport service, and the EU settlement scheme, which extends to four million people”.

She added: “We’ll be taking that into the future borders and immigration system, digitising the border.

“We can do more with data. That was raised in the Windrush Scandal that we didn’t have the right data for our case workers on the front line. We want to be more person-centric, more real time.”

What is important, said Davinson, is “modernising the infrastructure, moving more to the cloud, reducing our legacy, and getting some common data platforms and data standards in place across government”.

She mentioned the Emergency Services Network as her favourite project – a “modern 4G-based commercial infrastructure in place which opens up fantastic opportunities for data exploitation”.

Delivering the Welfare State

Reflecting on the supercharged work the DWP has had to do during the pandemic, with many new applicants for Universal Credit, Eblett said: “Delivering the welfare state is not something we have ever been able to do on our own. It is a huge endeavour for the country.”

He said the DWP will be having a supplier day soon, and is looking to engage with suppliers both small and large. “We want to put the citizen at the heart of DWP, not just in terms of an individual service or product,” he said. “We want to make far greater use of APIs [application programming interfaces], and focus on the removal of technical debt.”

The DWP disburses £180bn a year in welfare payments and generates about one-third of all inter-bank transactions in the UK. “They’ve just upgraded the application that does all that,” said Eblett. “Nevertheless, it is a huge, monolithic application that needs to be broken down and removed from the estate.”

But removing such legacy is a mammoth task, he said, adding: “If it was easy, we would have dealt with it before. We can do this, but we are going to need a lot of help.”

Read more about making the state smarter

Denney, formerly of HMRC, has been in the eye of the storm with respect to the fiscal strategy imposed by the government on the Treasury because of the Covid-19 crisis, and said he and his team had found themselves in the same room as chancellor Rishi Sunak, working in an agile manner.

Denney described how previous ways of working – he arrived in November 2019 as interim CDIO – were static and bureaucratic, unsuited to the pace of delivery necessitated by Covid. “In the past, people worked in a very serial manner, with many groups and departments involved across HMRC and the Treasury, in a piece of [fiscal] work,” he said. “Eventually, it would trundle its way down to the technology team, who would say ‘we can’t deliver this’ or ‘it’s going to take a long time’.

“So, for the Covid projects, like the Job Retention Scheme, we put that to one side and worked in an aggressively agile manner. And we put the user at the heart of the centre of design – ruthlessly simple, no bells and whistles.

“We condensed a nine-month process into a 24-hour period of coding.”

Paul Maltby, chief digital officer at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, summed up the change that the coronavirus crisis had wrought in the position of IT in government, central and local: “This theme of a smarter state – yes, it is better services and data, but the exciting thing is that we are no longer the technical people in the basement.

“We are in a much more prominent position where we can go further still upstairs and start to develop the thinking around whole public service models, not just in our own institutions but how these things link together across a whole system.”

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