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Top 10 public sector IT stories of 2016

In the year the UK public voted to leave the European Union, and the Government Digital Service saw an exodus of several senior leaders, large government IT projects continued to stir up controversy

It’s been a tumultuous year in the UK. Not only did the country decide it would be better off leaving the European Union, we also got a new prime minister and a cabinet re-shuffle – much like a real-life House of Cards. More importantly, GDS also went through some serious changes. Out went GDS boss Stephen Foreshew-Cain, replaced by DWP director Kevin Cunnington, followed by a waterfall of other senior GDS departures.

2016 also saw large government IT projects continuing to face scrutiny, and Scottish councils joined forces to get to grips with digital. If this year is anything to go by, 2017 is destined to give us an eventful 12 months.

Here are some of Computer Weekly’s top NHS IT stories of 2016:

1. DWP director Kevin Cunnington set to take over as new head of Government Digital Service  

In perhaps one of the biggest twists in the soap opera that is government IT this year, GDS got a new boss. In July, Computer Weekly learned that Kevin Cunnington had been appointed as the new director general at GDS, replacing Stephen Foreshew-Cain, who spent less than a year in the job. 

The reasons behind the move have been subject to speculation, with some suggesting it was a compromise to ease tensions between departments and GDS.

While Cunnington was quick to point out that this was not a “break up” of the organisation, several other senior GDS leaders followed Foreshew-Cain out the door in the weeks and months that followed.

2. GDS strategy aims to take digital transformation further  

With Cunnington at the helm, a new government digital transformation strategy was formed. An early draft, leaked to Computer Weekly in November, outlined three high-level objectives: making government simple for citizens to interact with, making government more open, and transforming the way government delivers.

A background document, leaked to Computer Weekly in December, outlined a fundamental rethink of the way Whitehall operates by breaking down silos, changing back-office processes and systems, and increasing collaboration.

3. Why are big government IT projects still going wrong 

It seems to be an endless battle. Government IT projects are often noted for their failure rather than their success, criticised for poor leadership, lack of relevant skills and spiralling costs.

The common expectation among the public now seems to be that any large government IT projects will inevitably suffer delays and cost overruns, and start to resemble a shambles. But what is going wrong, and why is there no “fix it” solution?

4. GDS hindered delivery of rural payments programme says PAC

One of the big government IT projects mentioned above is the rural payments programme, which has been beset with problems from the start.

In March, the Public Accounts Committee concluded the project had too much focus on the digital front end and that GDS failed to offer enough support. In fact, the PAC report said that instead of helping, GDS ended up obstructing its delivery. The project was also criticised for “embarrassing” behaviour among civil servants.

5. Interview: Janet Hughes, Verify programme director, GDS 

Ahead of the go-live of the government’s identity assurance service Verify in May, Computer Weekly spoke to its then-programme director Janet Hughes, who has since left GDS.

Hughes had great ambition for the service, with a goal of Verify becoming the standard way for citizens to prove their identity, not just in central government, but for other services too, such as opening bank accounts, checking their health records and getting a new mobile phone contract.

Post-Hughes’s departure, GDS is working on piloting the service with local authorities

6. Digital Economy Bill lacks clarity on data sharing, experts say

One of the most debated bills in parliament this year has been the Digital Economy Bill. The bill aims to make the UK a place “where technology ceaselessly transforms the economy, society and government,” but has been criticised by experts for not being clear enough on data sharing, especially on safeguards.

Experts also pointed out that there was no mention of Verify in the bill, despite it aiming to become the central way of establishing your identity. 

7. PM Theresa May promises £2bn extra R&D investment 

Amidst fears that a post-Brexit Britain will mean lack of skills and investment, prime minister Theresa May promised a £2bn boost to research and development a year by the end of this parliament. The funding, she said, will help put post-Brexit Britain at the cutting edge of science and tech.

May has been keen to point out that leaving the EU gives the country an “historic opportunity to signal the turn of change” and a new way of thinking. She also promised to make it easier for SMEs and startups to get “their first break”.

8. Scottish local government appoints CDO and CTO 

In what is potentially a first, 27 Scottish councils showed that it’s not all doom and gloom. They joined forces to recruit a joint chief digital officer (CDO) and a chief technology officer (CTO) to drive the digital agenda for local authorities.

In September the councils appointed CDO Martyn Wallace and CTO Colin Birchenhall to lead the transformation. The group also set up a new digital office which aims to become a centre of excellence for data, technology and digital.

9. Scottish police terminates IT systems contract with Accenture

After a troubled three years working on the i6 project, aiming to replace a series of legacy systems, the Scottish Police Authority, Accenture and Police Scotland mutually agreed to abandon the £40m contract.

The system was originally due to go live last year, but was delayed after a series of faults were found during testing. A review then concluded it couldn’t be delivered on time and on budget, so the parties came to the decision to terminate the contract.

10. Salford and Liverpool join forces on digital transformation

Liverpool and Salford Councils decided to join forces this July to upgrade their legacy IT systems.

The councils jointly signed a contract with SAP to deliver a technology platform, and should the scheme be successful, it could work as a model for other councils looking to do the same. 

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