The UK government has been urged to rethink its approach to delivery of digital public services, accelerate cloud and digital ID adoption, and take note of what digital government innovation leaders such as China and Russia are doing.
A list of 60 recommendations across various areas from spending and procurement of technology to skills and use of data, as well as the creation of new tech-focused departments and overseeing bodies is set out in the Proposals for better digital government report, which has been launched and delivered to the Cabinet Office and Number 10 this week.
The report is an initiative from the Commission on Smart Government (CSG), a project of GovernUp, an independent group of business leaders and former senior civil servants focused on generating research and proposals for reform of digital government. Despite welcoming the UK’s recent appointment of senior digital leadership roles and the creation of a new digital office, the CSG argues that the country has fallen behind in the global digital arena.
“The rolling IT problems that the NHS has encountered during the pandemic – from the NHS app to the problems during the vaccine roll-out – show that digital underperformance has serious consequences for the quality of critical services and can lead to increased popular disaffection with government and politics,” the report noted.
“Good digital government can underpin recovery and renewal, and project confidence and momentum at home and overseas. That is why matters have to change.”
According to the recommendations from the Commissioners – a group that includes Jacky Wright, former CIO at HM Revenue and Customs and Daniel Korski, co-founder and chief executive of govtech venture firm Public, former deputy head of the Number 10 Policy Unit and lead author of the report – the UK needs an overhaul of its government digital architecture.
“From working at the heart of government I know how far we have fallen behind and how urgent reform is; in the post-Covid-19 world, we need to offer better public services and that requires a digitally-native mindset and infrastructure,” said Korski.
In the vision set out in the CSG’s recommendations, government IT systems would move onto the cloud, with accelerated use of digital ID, “to bring Whitehall into line with modern private sector organisations”. The authors argue that a cloud-first approach would enable rapid digital transformation required from public sector bodies, and counter the deteriorating fiscal position these organisations face in the wake of the pandemic.
“Everyone has moved to the cloud and towards more agile, digital-first ways of working; the government needs to follow suit rather than fall behind. Our recommendations will help the Government get there, fast”, said former HMRC CIO Wright, now chief digital officer at Microsoft.
As well as ensuring cost and operational efficiency, the Commissioners argue that accelerated cloud adoption would also “disrupt the the dominance of large outsourcing providers” and enable agencies such as the NHS, businesses or charities to plug-in to government networks to offer services to citizens or companies.
The government should set a target to move all government services to the cloud by 2023, the report advised. Under that vision, new digital services would be built on a common cloud infrastructure, with integrated data systems deploying registries, open standards, shared components and open APIs.
“This approach would build a new kind of cloud-based government from the ground up, focused on the service needs of citizens, communities and businesses,” the report noted, adding that if implemented, this approach would position the UK as a digital government leader again.
Additionally, the CSG proposes the creation of a new Department of Digital, Innovation and Technology, similar to what can be seen in Denmark and South Korea. This new department would marshal the competencies of departments that already touch those themes, such as the Cabinet Office, the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
The report also recommended measures such as the creation of a National Digital Council in the same model of the National Security Council, the introduction of an Office of Digital Effectiveness on a par with the Office for Budget Responsibility, with a US-inspired “powerful” government chief digital officer (CDO) driving the changes.
The creation of a government Digital Ombudsman for citizen services delivered online is also among the recommendations, as is the creation of digital task forces in departments which would have will have the remit to design and deliver the new services
and mandate the changes needed to legacy systems.
According to the report, the events seen since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and the challenges in moving goods across borders after the end of the transition period have shown “how slowly the digital government machine moves, even in the most urgent of times”.
A “digital reboot” is crucial for the social and economic renewal process following Brexit and after the healthcare crisis is under control, the report noted. This would entail a shift away from the “centralised, slow-moving” approach to digital service delivery, it added, with public bodies and agencies gaining greater autonomy to respond to society’s challenges with technology.
However, the report acknowledges the wholesale implementation of its proposals is impossible or even desirable. It suggests a pilot with a selection of new services that would be built according to the reimagined vision of cloud-based, citizen-focused services outlined in the recommendations, and delivered by the departmental Digital Task Forces.
In this pilot, the National Digital Council would be created, co-chaired by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the new function of Secretary of State for Digital, and would involved all the relevant ministers, as well as the CDO to work towards interoperability and the creation of a “coherent larger system”.
Finally, the CSG recommends the creation of a Digital Whitehall Fund by the Treasury. This would combine expenditure on the existing services that would be consolidated by the Digital Task Forces and any additional spend required to build interoperability.
According to the report, these three priority areas should focus on the areas of business support, in aspects such as tax payments; land and development, for areas such as housing and planning; and early years support, with integration of areas such as ante-natal, midwifery and social services.
The Commissioners also accept that implementing the proposed changes would be hard – which doesn’t mean they should not be done.
“The kind of shift we propose will allow the government to solve macro-level challenges and then implement locally – but in an integrated fashion, rather than addressing them multiple times in different parts of government or in different layers of government,” the report said.
“[Change] will provide the ability to be agile in the design and deployment of new services or tools and ease integration into existing services. Critically, it will allow the Government to adapt services fast when circumstances change,” it added.
“This change, however hard, is a much less radical change than the shifts in the past from the early adoption of computers in the NHS in the 1960s.”