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Top 10 government and public sector IT stories of 2021

Technology is an increasingly important part of government policy in the UK – while the digital transformation of the public sector continued during 2021, albeit slowly in some places

As the UK emerged from the winter Covid-19 wave and slowly started to open up from lockdown, the UK public sector has increasingly turned to technology to reshape its relationship with citizens and the way that services are delivered.

The UK government announced a series of strategies and investments across 2021 to boost digital uptake and support the tech sector – from artificial intelligence to tech startups – while also struggling to deal with its own legacy IT infrastructure, which proved a major hindrance during the pandemic.

Going forward, technology will play a critical role in delivering key government policies, from securing borders to education, through to security and digital identity. Here are Computer Weekly’s top 10 stories about the UK government and public sector in 2021:

1. Interview: Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak on supporting the UK tech sector

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak is spearheading a Treasury initiative to reach out to leaders in the UK tech sector, such as CEOs, investors and startups, to better understand what the industry wants from the government in the post-Brexit world of “Global Britain”.

On 14 September, Sunak hosted a new event, Treasury Connect, to meet tech leaders and discuss their needs. Computer Weekly was invited to put questions to Sunak as part of a “fireside chat” to open the event.

2. CIO interview: Tom Read, chief executive, Government Digital Service

It is 10 years since the Government Digital Service (GDS) was set up, back in the early days of Cameron, Clegg and the Coalition. Lauded as the young, vibrant upstarts that would transform sleepy, sclerotic Whitehall departments, some would argue that GDS has since become just another part of the same old establishment bureaucracy that it was meant to disrupt.

A month before a critical July 2019 report by MPs, GDS director general Kevin Cunnington announced he was stepping down. The team was then under two different interim leaders until, in February 2021, a permanent chief was finally appointed. Tom Read, previously chief digital and information officer at the Ministry of Justice, took on the new title of GDS chief executive.

3. Technology takes centre stage in UK government reform

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.

4. The UK’s struggle with digital schooling

On Monday 4 January 2021, children were starting their first week back at school after the Christmas break. By that evening, the government announced the closure of schools in England, as well as a country-wide lockdown, and the situation in Wales and Scotland looked similar.

For most, this was a complete surprise, after prime minister Boris Johnson’s insistence that schools were safe enough to stay open. For many, it also highlights the scale of the UK’s digital divide.

Having to use digital devices and services to teach children from home ranged from an inconvenience to impossible, depending on the capabilities of each household.

5. UK government launches first national artificial intelligence strategy

The UK government has launched a 10-year artificial intelligence (AI) plan to position the country as “the best place to live and work with AI” through a set of rules and governance, applied ethics and a pro-innovation regulatory framework.

Launched on 22 September by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the strategy is expected to boost corporate adoption of AI technologies, build the national AI skills base and attract international investments in the space – the UK currently ranks third in global venture capital investment in AI, and is the base of one-third of all European AI companies.

6. Cabinet Office slammed after advising users to ditch UKCloud as further investment nears

The Cabinet Office came under fire after advising public sector users of a UK specialist cloud provider to find alternative suppliers, over fears about the company’s financial security.

Computer Weekly has seen evidence that at least one major government department has told suppliers whose software is hosted by UKCloud that they must move to a different hosting provider.

Multiple independent sources have told Computer Weekly that the edict originated from the Cabinet Office, which has warned that all public sector customers of UKCloud – an SME that specialises in public sector cloud – should seek alternative suppliers.

7. GDS secures up to £400m funding for One Login digital identity project

The Government Digital Service (GDS) has secured up to £400m it requested in the latest spending review to develop a new digital identity system over the next three years.

The Autumn Budget documents only said that the Cabinet Office had been given “funding to progress development of ‘One Login’, a new system to allow users to access government services – from paying taxes to registering births – through a single portal”, but did not include any figures for how much was to be allocated.

However, Computer Weekly understands that, while final details have yet to be concluded, HM Treasury has agreed to a budget in the region of £400m for the One Login project, which is expected to become the common single sign-on system used across the website. Computer Weekly first revealed in September that GDS had estimated the cost of One Login at between £300m and £400m.

8. UK to have digital border by end of 2025

The Home Office has launched a scheme to create a digital border as part of its plans for immigration reform.

The government’s New plan for immigration: legal migration and border control sets out how it aims to achieve a “fully digital end-to-end experience” in all aspects of immigration and border crossings.

9. DWP completes in-house VME replacement project

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has built its own, in-house virtual machine environment (VME), moving away from a long-standing outsourcing deal.

The huge project, believed to be the largest of its kind in Europe, has seen the department develop and roll out an in-house VME replacement, replacing 11 key benefit systems which pay out more than £150bn a year to citizens, without any downtime.

The DWP’s old VME mainframe services were fully managed by Fujitsu since the system was first installed in 1974, and most of the department’s critical IT systems, including the benefit systems, were still being run on the proprietary operating system, originally developed by ICL before its acquisition by Fujitsu.

10. Parliament bill to create the UK's Advanced Research and Invention Agency

A new bill was introduced to Parliament to create the UK’s Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), an agency that will have the powers and freedoms to fund and develop scientific research at pace.

Announced in February 2021, ARIA has a model based on the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and its successor, Darpa. The new agency is supported by £800m in funding and will be backing high-risk research that offers the chance of high rewards in terms of their transformational impact on society.

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