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Too many disconnected systems in government, says minister

Cabinet Office minister Julia Lopez wants to address issues with legacy systems, improve digital skills across government and improve department collaboration, including in procurement

Cabinet Office minister Julia Lopez has highlighted plans to improve digital and data functions across government, with a vision of having “highly capable and interoperable systems with plug-and-play technology”.

Speaking at the Digital Government Virtual Summit, Lopez said the government is committed to accelerate the digital transformation of public services.

She said the UK is already at the forefront of digital government, but there is still more to be done. “True digital transformation can only be achieved if we have robust, reliable and accessible data,” she added. “It’s the crucial enabler which will make the UK the world’s leading digital government that we all aspire to be.” 

Lopez said this includes “more personalised and responsive services and systems, improving the government’s approach to policy and decision making and, of course, bringing efficiencies to government which is going to save taxpayers’ money”.

The government has begun work on a small pilot for a successor to its identity platform Gov.uk Verify. The Verify platform, which will run until 2023, has suffered from low uptake and Lopez has previously said that “all parties” are keen to move on from its legacy. 

“In time, the new identity platform will replace the other digital identity systems across government, further reducing the complexity of needing multiple accounts to interact with government systems,” she said.

The government recently set up its Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), which will lead the digital and data agenda across government.

Lopez said the CDDO will tackle longstanding issues such as “legislative, technical and security blockers” that are currently stopping government from sharing, collecting and using data that could be used to provide tailored and responsive public services.

“Crucially, there isn’t enough of the right talent and tools in place,” she said. “That means that even when data is made available, we aren’t able currently to take full advantage of new technologies that can not only help us fix current issues, but predict them more effectively to manage future challenges.

“Through the CDDO, we intend to tackle this longstanding issue head-on.”

This includes establishing a common data model across government, with core data standards and policies, and creating a joined-up interoperable data infrastructure, she said.

Lopez said she also wants to tackle the cultural and legal barriers to “good-quality data in government”.

In August 2020, the Data Standards Authority (DSA) published guidance on data sharing in government, and the work done by the DSA has made it “much easier and more effective to share and use data across government”, said Lopez.

“An example of that is the API [application programming interface] catalogue, which provides a list of government APIs to help unblock issues such as reuse and data exchange. We can see the progress in this area as DSA is going to be continuing to focus on setting and driving adoption of standards and data, so it can lead to greater consistency, integrity and interoperability.”

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The government also wants to tackle the plethora of legacy systems within departments and government agencies, said Lopez, who added that legacy systems are the “elephant in the room” because “as long as we continue to rely on outdated systems and technology, we will be unable to fully harness more opportunity to emerging technologies and modern digital solutions”.

She added: “This is a core reason why the CDDO has been established to work across government and define the future of our technology estate, to clarify the priorities and roadmap for dealing with regulated legacy IT.”

Lopez said that although there have been major developments in approaches to technology across government, it is not yet “sufficiently modernised or joined-up enough to support our vision, despite departments separately taking steps to transform single department accountability”.

“Several small procurements and varied approaches have allowed silos and restricted architecture to develop.”

Lopez said there are too many disconnected systems in government that offer poor user experience and are insufficiently responsive, because they are not interoperable and built on open standards.

Despite a focus on using cloud across government, this is also generally done in a siloed way, which has resulted in systems sitting in disconnected cloud architectures, while some departments continue to be locked into inefficient legacy systems, she added.

“In order to work collaboratively, there needs to be clarity of what should be done consistently, and what should be allowed to vary, and then managing compliance with the approach,” said Lopez, adding that the government will soon start discovery work to understand the most effective way of aligning assurance, strategies and a roadmap, “with careful consideration given to existing cross-government assurance structures and, of course, all of our past experience”.

The government’s vision is to have interoperable systems with plug-and-play technology “that allows products and components to be swapped in and out”, said the minister.

“This is going to be really vital to meet new challenges and serve different users flexibly at pace, and in line with changing needs and expectations.”

Lopez said the government wants to make it easier for departments to improve their technology, and is working to find new ways of funding digital, data and technology that “allow for innovation and flexibility across departments, as well as provide enough certainty that government money is being spent in the right ways”.

“The CDDO will work with the Treasury to explore options and ways to do this.”

To achieve digital transformation across government, digital skills are key, not just for those in the digital, data and technology (DDaT) profession, but across government, she said.

Improving digital literacy for every civil servant and government ministers, “particularly senior leaders in the civil service as well, it’s crucial to realise an ambition of having world-leading digital services,” said Lopez.

The government also wants to create job opportunities in digital outside London, and build training academies and tap into early talent programmes across the country, she added. It is also looking at the potential for a technology ecosystem in the UK and to build tech hubs across the country.

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