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Top 10 government and public sector IT stories of 2020

Here are Computer Weekly’s top 10 government and public IT stories of 2020

It’s been a busy year for the UK government. As if preparing for the end of the Brexit transition period wasn’t enough, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, shifting priorities, targets and budget. 

The need for technology to run services, both across local and central government, became even more apparent, as both courts and parliament moved to virtual hearings and sessions, and local government needed to find ways to interact with citizens during the pandemic.

There were also significant changes in the digital identity space during 2020. While the Treasury extended funding for Gov.uk Verify due to the pandemic, it equally told GDS that no further online services could use it, while the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) began digital identity talks with the private sector.

2020 did not, however, bring the end of large outsourcing deals. In Scotland, a local council extended its outsourcing deal until 2040, a whopping 20 years from now, while HM Revenue and Customs decided it couldn’t survive without Fujitsu’s VME platform, and shelled out £169m for a five-year deal.  

Here are Computer Weekly’s top government and public sector IT stories of 2020:

1. Treasury gives Gov.uk Verify 18-month reprieve due to coronavirus

The troubled government ID platform, Gv.uk Verify, was originally due to have its funding terminated in April 2020. However, the coronavirus crisis saw a huge surge in use, particularly as people began to apply for Universal credit, and HM Treasury made the decision to extend funding for a further 18 months. This did however, come with strict conditions, and the Government Digital Service (GDS) is now allowed to add any more services to the scheme while existing users must to find alternative solutions before the 18 months are up.

2. HMRC yet to begin building UK border IT system 

Preparing for the end of the Brexit transition period has been a big job for government, and one that hasn’t always gone to plan.

In June 2020, it emerged that the government had yet to begin building the Goods Vehicle Movement System (GVMS), intended to allow trucks to declare goods ahead of reaching the border, allowing for smoother traffic flow, particularly at busier ports such as Dover. At the time, the definition and the specification of the system had yet to be set, but head of EU exit at the Port of Dover said it was “definitely not impossible” to get done on time.

3. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s 2020 Budget pumps £22bn into R&D

The government’s 2020 Budget, delivered a couple of weeks before the country went into lockdown, announced the “largest increase in R&D spend ever”, with chancellor Rishi Sunak saying the country’s “success in the global economy will be rooted in innovation and cutting edge technology”.

The Budget also promised £5bn to get gigabit-capable broadband into the hardest-to-reach areas of the UK, but decided to slash tax relief for entrepreneurs, something which was seen as a blow to some.

4. DCMS opens talks with private sector on future of digital identity market

In November 2020, two months after the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) finally released its response to the 2019 call for evidence on the digital identity market, the department’s deputy director for digital identity, Hannah Rutter, announced that the department was making headway with its digital identity programme.

It is currently working on creating a trust framework with standards for digital identity that will guide the market.

It also emerged that the department had held a meeting with suppliers to discuss the future of the country’s digital identity market.  

5. Government publishes long-promised national data strategy

While DCMS published its guidance for a national data strategy in July 2019, it wasn’t until September 2020 that the government finally published it, although the strategy is still a work in progress. The government also launched a consultation to help “shape the core principles of the strategy”. The strategy includes plans to introduce primary legislation to increase participation, in what are being called “smart data initiatives”.

These are said to be aimed at giving people the ability to use their own data to find better tariffs for telecoms, energy and pensions. It also restates the long-standing intention to appoint a government chief data officer “to lead a whole-government approach to transforming government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services”.

6. HMRC signs five-year £169m contract with Fujitsu for VME platform

In October 2020, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) signed a new deal with its long-term supplier Fujitsu, which has provided the department with its virtual managed environment (VME) platform for the past 30 years. Under the new deal, Fujitsu will provide its VME for a range of applications.

HMRC said it had to sign a new contract with the supplier, as “the VME hosting platform is proprietary to Fujitsu and so VME-based services are technically only available from Fujitsu and are not available in the market from alternative third-party service providers”, and there is “no alternative that would technically be capable of being successfully deployed before HMRC’s requirements for the run-off services come to an end”.

7. Government on the hunt for GDS CEO

Following the departure of Government Digital Service (GDS) interim director general Alison Pritchard, the government decided to recruit a GDS CEO, who will report directly to government chief digital officer.

The role, with a salary of £168,000 a year, is a CEO role rather than a director general role, but according to the job advert, it is “a director general level post, and the successful candidate will be responsible for creating and implementing a vision and strategy for the delivery of common components, products and platforms that meet departments’ diverse needs and citizens’ growing expectations”.

8. Scottish Borders extends CGI outsourcing contract until 2040

In Scotland, the Scottish Borders Council also decided it couldn’t be without its long-standing supplier, this time CGI. It extended its outsourcing deal with the supplier for end-to-end managed IT services until 2040, a 20-year extension, and one of the longest in CGI’s history.

The council originally signed a 13-year, £92.5m contract with CGI in 2016, which was due to expire in 2029. The contract was seen as a catalyst for the council to lead a digital channel shift and boost the local economy by £100m.  

9. Industry tells House of Lords committee it has ‘grave reservations’ about CDS

Despite HMRC insisting the delivery of Brexit IT systems was on track, industry told a House of Lords committee it had concerns that the Customs Declaration Service, which will be used on the Ireland/Northern Ireland border from 1 January 2021, was not ready, and that its functionality remained “unproven”.

Des Hiscock, regional CEO at Customs Support and UK Association for International Trade director general, said it was “simply unacceptable”, and that HMRC was taking a “cloak and dagger” approach to development. HMRC, however, said industry had been given clear information regarding what would be required by the end of the transition period.

10. Scotland makes inroads in digital identity project

In February 2020, the Scottish government began building a prototype of its digital identity platform, as part of its Digital Identity Scotland programme.

The aim was to create a reusable digital identity service, and the prototype pilot was a huge success, with users finding it easy to use, and understand the concept of two-factor authentication and why they would benefit from a digital identity system.

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