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UK should set up digital task forces to transform governance

Commission for Smart Government paper sets out recommendations for how government can use digital technologies to better serve citizens’ needs, and calls for it to set up new digital task forces

The UK government should establish a series of digital task forces with remits to design and deliver new, interoperable digital services for citizens, says coalition of business leaders, MPs and former government officials.

According to a paper published 12 July 2021 by the Commission for Smart Government (CSG) - which was established by the Project for Modern Democracy think-tank to generate research and proposals for reform of digital government – these new digital task forces can help the government better use digital technologies to drive the transformation of public services, rather than simply overlaying them on top of analogue processes.

Where necessary, the paper said these task forces should be able to disregard departmental boundaries to create “cross-cutting services that are currently run by departments, and build cloud-based government services from the ground up, focused on the needs of citizens, communities and businesses”.

It added the task forces should also be overseen by a minister, with an official at the level of permanent secretary directly in charge and a chief digital officer in a supporting role – “to be effective, Task Forces will require specialist recruitment, ringfenced resources, and power to change how departments are currently working, including legacy systems”.

To ensure the interoperability what the task forces produce, the paper further recommends that the government develop an easy-to-use, mobile-first app to act as a gateway to all the public services they would need to access; from paying taxes and receiving benefits to passport renewals and parking fines.

“This is likely to be a single digital facade to services run by central government, local government and other parts of the public service.

“There should be a consistent user journey, design and feel for all government services,” it said, adding that government should also set digital standards for departments to follow to ensure a cohesive approach.

Modern standardised APIs

These standards should include mandating the use of modern standardised application programming interfaces (APIs) in all contracts with a data component and where sharing or processing the data is in the public interests; as well as cleaning up important data sets to make them accessible and creating specific roles for people to manage them.

“To deliver the promise of levelling up and achieve challenging carbon reduction targets, government will need to focus talent at the local and regional level and disrupt current ways of working, because incremental change will not be sufficient,” it said.

“We propose a cadre of 1,000 ‘Crown Fellows’, an infusion of highly effective people drawn from across the public and private sectors, academia and the third sector, able to bring their skills and varied experience to bear in catalysing change in the areas of most urgency.”

Speaking at a launch event for the paper in Whitehall, former Conservative MP Nick Herbert said the CSG’s aim is to address systemic problems in the system of public administration, and reiterated the paper’s view that any systemic overhaul would require greater collaboration between both politicians and the wider public sector, as well as the private sector.

“There is, I believe, a growing consensus, both in the political world and in Whitehall, that there are systemic issues that are the responsibility of politicians and the public service to address together, and that we have a common endeavour,” he said.

“In the same way, we didn't find ourselves constrained by all debates about public versus private, these too were behind us, I think of the example of the Nightingale Hospitals built at such speed at the beginning of the Covid epidemic… they were achieved as a result of what I call fusion government by the combined efforts of the public sector, private sector and indeed the military.”

The CSG is a project of GovernUp, “an independent, non-party research initiative that offers evidenced-based solutions for all political parties to adopt”, which is itself an initiative of Project for Modern Democracy.

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All three are chaired or co-chaired by Herbert, who established the Project for Modern Democracy in 2014 as a registered charity “to promote more efficient government and good citizenship”.

Herbert’s comments echo those made my former health secretary Matt Hancock and chief digital officer at healthcare innovation unit NHSX Tara Donnelly in July 2020, in which they praised the private sector’s collaboration with the NHS and encouraged greater involvement in tech development after the pandemic.

“The old row about what’s delivered through the public sector and what’s delivered through the private sector has abated enormously,” said Hancock at the time.

“What really matters when there’s a proper crisis is how can you deliver the mission on which you are engaged, whether that’s treating Covid or stopping the spread of the epidemic – it matters far less the badge of the person who’s doing the job.”

The CSG’s paper builds on its previous work on digitising public services, which found that a lack of “willingness to genuinely engage citizens and stakeholders” in the development of new technologies.

“The government needs to think about how the service or product being developed and introduced will not just solve a problem, will not just avoid doing harm, but actually will help those in greatest need and strengthen society more broadly,” said the CSG in a discussion paper released in October 2020.

“Guided by this overarching principle, digital services should follow a number of additional tenets, including: designing for users’ privacy, technical security, and data integrity; focusing relentlessly on the users’ need and feedback; adopting a ‘test and learn’ approach to digital services; setting clear and open targets for success; and working in the open, ideally auditably, and under clear governance arrangements.”

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