ex_flow - stock.adobe.com
It has been an interesting year for the UK government. While 2023 saw significantly fewer Cabinet reshuffles than the previous year, the economic climate and the cost-of-living crisis have led to challenging times. When it comes to digital, data and technology, things have stayed much the same – with lofty promises and great ideas, but little fruition.
The pitfalls of running a major digital transformation project in government have continued to repeat themselves, with poor business cases, lack of leadership and transparency, and digital skills shortages just some of the issues that present themselves time and time again.
As we say farewell to 2023, even with a new, dedicated department for science and technology, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), the government is still struggling with the same challenges of moving digital transformation forward at pace and scale.
Among the challenges, there have been some positive steps forward, but whether government will ever truly manage its goal of digital public services exceeding expectation by 2025 remains to be seen.
Here are Computer Weekly’s top 10 stories about the UK government and public sector in 2023.
Along with the February 2023 reshuffle came the creation of four new departments, including the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT). A department solely dedicated to science and technology policy, created to drive forward the delivery of innovation and public services.
According to prime minister Rishi Sunak, DSIT is there to make sure the UK becomes a science and technology superpower, and to put public services at the forefront of innovation. So far, the department has launched several strategies, including the national semiconductor strategy and the UK science and technology framework.
After a short delay, the much anticipated Data Protection and Digital Information Bill was introduced to Parliament in March 2023. The revised bill includes a simple, business-friendly framework that the government hopes will not be difficult or costly to implement and will support international trade.
However, critics called for the bill to be scrapped, claiming that many of the proposals in the document endangered UK data protection and gave little protection to individuals’ rights and freedoms. Despite the criticism, the government has pressed on with the bill, which is currently being introduced in the House of Lords.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and its criticism of digital government transformation was back with a vengeance this year. In a report published in September 2023, the committee slammed the government for still struggling to achieve digital transformation, despite its numerous strategies over the years.
It’s a story that repeats itself over and over again: lack of leadership, digital skills shortages and crossed wires over who is responsible for what. According to the PAC’s report, part of the problem is that while a fundamental reform of public services is needed, these services very rarely have a single owner responsible for the service, and often have a lack of metrics on cost and performance, making it hard to figure out how much a project costs and whether it’s efficient.
While the PAC says the government is currently only capable of incremental changes to services, and that there is a serious shortage of skills, the government seems upbeat, claiming that its numerous skills and recruitment initiatives will solve the problem, no bother.
It’s not just government as a whole that has suffered the wrath of the PAC. Plenty of departments have also been criticised, including HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and its Making Tax Digital initiative, which instead of making life easier for taxpayers, has increased the burden.
There are many aspects of the programme that have been botched, but perhaps most significantly, HMRC’s failure to mention in its latest business cases that it could actually cost business taxpayers almost £2bn to comply with the new arrangements.
There is also still no clear answer on how Making Tax Digital for Income Tax Self Assessment will work, despite the programme having ran for seven years, racking up costs of nearly £650m. Anyone fancy filing their taxes?
5. GCHQ breached privacy rights of IT professional and security researcher, human rights court rules
It is not just here at home the UK government has come under fire. GCHQ, which got a new director in Anne Keast-Butler earlier this year, came under fire from none other than the European Court of Human Rights in Brussels in September. The court ruled that Britain’s spy agencies violated the privacy rights of two foreign nationals living outside the UK as part of its bulk interception programme.
The UK government argued that the interception of communications did not fall in the UK’s jurisdiction when either the sender or the recipient complaining about a breach of their privacy rights was outside the UK. This was rejected by the court, drawing analogies between interfering in people’s privacy rights through surveillance and interference with their personal property.
“It could not seriously be suggested that searching a person’s home would fall out of jurisdiction if a person was abroad when the search took place,” the court said.
The Foreign Office, together with DSIT, put together an international technology strategy aimed at promoting the UK abroad. This includes setting up a Technology Centre of Expertise to promote the country abroad, appointing tech envoys and using technology as a tool of diplomacy.
The strategy, which the government sees as “a vehicle to deliver the UK’s technology ambition on the world stage”, will also help deliver on its ambition of becoming a tech superpower within the next six years.
In early 2023, the government launched a consultation on its proposed legislation to enhance data sharing across the public sector to support its digital identity plans. A few months later, it published the results, revealing that people are not particularly keen. Most of the 66,000 responses expressed concerns around data privacy and did not believe data sharing would improve public services or benefit individuals.
With this in mind, did the government waiver in its commitment to data sharing? Absolutely not. The government is steadfast in its plans to take forward the proposed regulations “as soon as Parliamentary time allows”.
The government also criticised respondents, saying that most of those who responded commented on wider issues rather than the specific questions asked, and said many appeared to have been “significantly influenced” by anti-digital commentaries against implementing digital ID in principle.
Although the Francis Maude era in government is behind us, the former Cabinet Office minister and architect of the Government Digital Service (GDS) still holds influence in Whitehall. In his review of the civil service, Maude, who has time and time again cautioned government to ensure there is strong central leadership backing GDS, called for the organisation to merge with the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO).
His review said that, over the years, GDS has suffered from a dilution in leadership and functional mandate, and that by separating GDS and CDDO, which was set up in 2021 as a strategic centre for digital, data and technology, accountability has become fragmented. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the review was given a rather cool welcome by government, while its publication was buried in the midst of a Cabinet reshuffle.
The government’s efforts to create a digital identity system has provided many stories for Computer Weekly over the years. Its current digital ID programme, One Login, is a £400m project to create a system mandated for use across government departments.
While the system is still only live some services, classed as early adopters, One Login’s ID checking apps reached more than two million downloads earlier this year.
Over the course of the year, GDS has also signed several contracts with suppliers for various things, including capability delivery partners, mobile app delivery, a face-to-face service for identity checks and a contact centre.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt announced in his 2023 Spring Budget that IT investments could be deducted from taxable profits for the next three years. Continuing to fly the flag for technology, Hunt also announced plans to foster the country’s AI industry and launched an annual £1m price for British AI research.
The government also set out a £2.5bn quantum technology strategy to ensure the UK, as Hunt himself put it, is a “world-leading quantum-enabled economy by 2033”.