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Technology takes centre stage in UK government reform

The government’s tech recovery programme includes a pledge to shift towards data interoperability and phasing out legacy systems

The UK has launched a government reform programme intended to speed up the country’s recovery following the emergence of Covid-19, with one of the key pillars relating to improved performance through better use of technology.

Announced on 15 June, the plan aims to “rebalance government away from Whitehall, open up the Civil Service to fresh skills, talent and ideas, and embrace digital technology and data-based decision-making” to address the weaknesses revealed during the pandemic across areas of the public sector, and to boost its strengths.

As the UK sees opportunities to recover from the crisis, the government wants to be “best equipped to deliver on citizen priorities”, said prime minister Boris Johnson. “That’s why we are launching our blueprint for reform – to keep building on our expertise, modernise how government is run and transform this country for the better.”

The bulk of the pledges relating to technology are in the performance section of the Declaration of Government Reform, where promises are outlined in relating to the modernisation of the public sector operations, and a need to be “more disciplined in prioritising and evaluating” such projects.

The document noted that “updating the wiring of government” is nothing new, but the rapid pace of change seen in the pandemic when it comes to the changing relationship between the state and citizens, as well as the value of data in decision making means the government “can’t afford to fail’ in its digital initiatives.

“We will invest in the latest technology, and replace legacy IT systems that are overly complex and difficult to use,” the reform declaration said. It also noted that all departments will have access to interoperable data platforms and IT services, as well as a single digital log-on for all government services.

To solve policy and delivery issues, central government will be supporting departments with functions and platforms they need, the document noted, without citing further details as to how that will happen.

A list of 30 specific actions the government will take in 2021 to ensure the reform plan delivers the intended results include mandatory reporting of the costs and risks of outdated IT systems. According to the document, the idea is to ensure that no new IT systems are created without interoperability with other relevant government systems.

Moreover, the UK government wants to put data at the heart of its decision-making, to “learn explicitly” from the Covid-19 response. “We will set a presumption in favour of openness and a requirement to share data across departments, so that policies are informed by the best data analysis from across government,” the document said.

The intention is to create data inventories “to ensure we know what data exists, where it is stored, and how it can be accessed”, the declaration said, adding that the government plans to “make data visualisation a common tool to ensure ministers and officials understand in real time the latest evidence underpinning decisions”.

The pledge also includes an improvement of cross-government functions – such as digital, commercial, finance and human resources – to improve the support of corporate activity within departments, following the recommendations of the Digital Economy Council and the Maude Reviews.

“Departments will set clear targets and goals for the areas in which they have to deliver, with regular and public reporting,” the declaration said. “They will also be encouraged to be creative and imaginative in problem-solving and policy formulation, but expected to be rigorous in welcoming evaluation and scrutiny.”

As part of the aim to improve on project and service delivery, the reform declaration also foresees the introduction of a dedicated senior responsible owner (SRO) for all major projects, with approval “tied to competent leadership”.

“We will not allow hierarchy to impede rapid problem-solving or effective delivery, and ensure we have the right structures in place to deliver the outcomes we want as efficiently as possible,” the document said. “We will strengthen the operational delivery profession to ensure consistent high quality service.”

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