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Government digital chiefs outline plans for CDDO and GDS

Paul Willmott, Joanna Davinson and Tom Read talk about establishing a digital, data and technology sub-board, plans to hire a chief technology officer and a chief data officer, and a five-year plan for the Government Digital Service

Paul Willmott, chairman of the government’s Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), is in the process of creating a digital, data and technology (DDaT) sub-board for the existing civil service board.

And speaking at a virtual Institute for Government (IfG) event, CDDO executive director Joanna Davinson said the board would comprise permanent secretaries from across government. The aim is to build a better relationship with the rest of government, ensuring that the CDDO does not end up as some “big central bureaucracy”, she said.

“We have to get better at communicating with policy colleagues – we are establishing a DDaT sub-board which will be chaired by Paul [Willmott] and [HMRC CEO] Jim Harra,” said Davinson. “It will be a permanent secretary-level board, the pinnacle of our governance, and it’s really important that we use that as an opportunity to get the message top down about the need to get policy, ops and tech together.”

Willmott is currently streamlining a longlist of potential candidates down to a shortlist, and said he was keen to ensure the board will be diverse and inclusive.

“We have reached broadly and assembled a big, interesting longlist for the panel with some very experienced individuals,” he said.

“We’re going through shortlisting this week and doing so in a way to build diversity in background, thought and gender as much as we can, as I genuinely believe it will lead to better answers.”

The government first announced the new CDDO in January 2021, and it became operational in February. The office’s goal is to ensure that the UK is a leader in digital government and to get to the “heart” of Whitehall digital transformation.

Speaking at the virtual event, Davinson said the most important part of it all is, “How do we improve user experience in interacting with government?

“That is actually what we are trying to deliver,” she said.

Davinson added that although there are some great examples of work being done across government, there is a lot that isn’t digitised. “There’s still a lot of paper in our system,” she said. “If I’m honest, if you’re a user trying to navigate government systems, it’s very disconnected.

“We at the CDDO need to work very proactively with departments and leverage things like automation and agile working, and focus on digitising end to end.”

One of the key factors in digitising government services is data, said Davinson. It is important to make data more accessible and shareable across government, and although some “great work” has been done by the Data Standards Authority, which published guidance on data sharing in August 2020, “we need to do a lot more”, she said.

To achieve this, the government is also looking to appoint a chief data officer (CDO) to lead on the work. “We think it’s really important to appoint a government chief data officer, not to do it all, but to convene and lead the cross-government communities who are engaged,” said Davinson.

The CDDO is working on how to create the right frameworks to use data appropriately in government, and ensuring the right balance between sharing and protecting data. “It’s a difficult balance to strike,” she said.

CDDO chairman Willmott added that it is also important to have the right standards in place, as well as having people in the civil service with the capability to understand the data.

“We need to raise the level of data literacy across the civil service and government,” he said. “How do we do that? It’s providing the right sort of training. No 10 is running a small training programme on data already and we will expand on that.”

The CDDO will work to upskill the DDaT profession, but also work with HR colleagues across government to find a way to include digital skills as part of training, ensuring everyone in government understands digital and data.

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Davinson said much work is also needed to address and modernise the technology infrastructure across government. She said there needs to be a real focus on implementing a hybrid cloud environment, much more modular approaches to architecture to reduce legacy technology and enable interoperability, data exchange and maximising accessibility.

“I’m going to appoint a government chief technology officer, who, like the CDO, will be accountable for ensuring we get that in place,” she said.

Also speaking at the event was recently appointed GDS chief executive Tom Read, who outlined the organisation’s focus over the next five years.

He said that although there had been great progress over the last 10 years of GDS, with “every amazing digital service we talk about, there are probably 50 or 100 that require the user to have a printer or even a fax machine”.

“We’ve identified 4,000 services that require downloading a PDF, so there’s still a lot to do that we haven’t got to,” he said, adding that there are three main priorities for the next five years.

“One is itself – we need to keep that reliable and up to date with fresh content,” he said.

“Secondly, personalised whole user journeys. Things like 'turning 18 as a service', 'retiring as a service', 'having a baby as a service', 'having a business as a service'. How can we use the data and all the different things we know about citizens and how the data works, and make it simple for users?

“There is no one person in government that owns that whole journey, so we will need to work with a bunch of different people from different bits of government. But it all centres around [the fact] that if we’re going to make head or tail of this, we need to speak to the users and go, 'How does it feel to you?' And that, for me, is proper user-centred design.”

The third main priority is what Read refers to as “our B2B arm” – building common platforms.

“We should still be building platforms and components once in the centre that can be reused right across government,” he said. “That’s not just because it’s cheaper and efficient, but because if we’re going to tackle that long tail of 4,000 forms, if we can go out to departments and agencies and say, ‘This is digital government in a box, just plug and play and check here if you want help with installation and we’ll send a team’, we can go at scale and get that long tail sorted out.”

One of these platforms is Verify, which was recently extended for two more years while the government builds a new digital identity platform.

As previously reported by Computer Weekly, the government is working on trialing its “discrete digital identity project”, which will create the proof of concept for a new digital identity service. This time around, the government is mandating that departments comply.

Read said that it is sometimes easy to forget that when talking about user needs, civil servants are users too and it is important to work out and understand what they need.

“There really will be friction points, not least in getting our digital identity solution adopted,” he said. “That’s going to be hard, but it’s not impossible if we build it and genuinely listen to what people want from services like that, then there’s no reason for them not to adopt it.”

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