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Top 10 public sector IT stories of 2017

This was the year when the government sprung an unexpected general election on us, continued to bicker over Brexit and consequent IT systems, parliament was hit by a cyber attack and digital promises were made

It has been a busy year in Whitehall. There was a somewhat surprising general election, bringing with it a new minister responsible for digital, concerns over IT systems being ready for Brexit and a whopping £500m promised for digital in the Autumn Budget.

It was also the year when the government finally published its long-awaited transformation strategy, public sector IT projects continued to face scrutiny, and parliament was hit by a cyber attack. A standard year in government, really – and if 2017 is anything to go by, 2018 will be an interesting affair.

Here are Computer Weekly’s top 10 public sector IT stories of 2017.

1. Chancellor Philip Hammond pledges more than £500m for tech in 2017 Budget

In November, the chancellor announced a remarkably tech-friendly budget, with a total of £500m pledged to various technology and digital projects, such as artificial intelligence (AI), driverless cars, computer science educationbroadband, 5G, tech startups, open data, digital skills and R&D.

Hammond said these would make the country “fit for the future” by increasing productivity to ensure a vibrant economy after the country leaves the EU. But with Brexit looming, there are some who are concerned it may not be enough. Will it be? Only time will tell.  

2. Government digital transformation strategy promises to ‘serve’ its people

Some people probably thought it would never happen, but in February, the government digital transformation strategy finally saw the light of day.

The much-delayed strategy would, according to the then Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer, “take digital transformation further than ever before” by prioritising an overhaul of the civil service, developing skills and culture, using shared platforms, changing back-office processes and systems, and increasing collaboration.

The strategy was indeed an ambitious document, making grand promises. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the surprise general election, we have yet to see much of it bearing fruit.   

3. What next for digital government post-election? 

The general election led to a lot of upheaval across government. Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer lost his seat, to be replaced by prime minister Theresa May’s right-hand man, Damian Green

Industry experts called for strong leadership at the Government Digital Service and Cabinet Office to drive forward the digital agenda in Whitehall, and in the end it was Cabinet Office parliamentary under-secretary Caroline Nokes who was handed the responsibility for digital. 

Nokes, who had more than one media outlet sniggering at the fact that she is the former CEO of the National Pony Society, perhaps does not have the background many would hope for in a digital minister. But in her first speech on digital government, she held her own and probably won over some sceptics. 

4. Business as usual at Parliament after cyber attack 

As if Parliament didn’t have enough to deal with, shortly after the general election, it was hit by a sustained and determined cyber attack.

The attack led to the Parliamentary Digital Service (PDS) having to suspend remote access to the accounts of all 9,000 parliamentary network users, leaving MPs, peers and their staff without access to emails.

The attack, which former PDS director Rob Greig said ended up being “the perfect storm”, caused a lot of upheaval, but it didn’t take long before it was back to business as usual. 

5. Citizens Advice calls for roll-out of Universal Credit to be paused 

The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) deployment of the Universal Credit (UC) full service continued to make headlines throughout 2017. The roll-out of the full service – enabling all new benefit claims to be handled through UC – continues, with the completion date for the entire programme set for 2022

In July, advisory charity Citizens Advice called on the government to stop the roll-out as citizens struggled to use the digital service, particularly with verifying their identity online, or simply not having the digital skills to do so. Despite concerns, work and pensions secretary David Gauke confirmed in October that the government would continue its roll-out plans. 

6. No guarantees HMRC’s customs declaration service ready for Brexit 

In October, HM Revenue and Customs CEO Jon Thompson told MPs he could not guarantee the department’s new customs declaration service (CDS) would be ready by the time the UK leaves the EU.

The CDS programme is currently rated Amber by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which means it is “in doubt” with “major risks”. Earlier this year, the National Audit Office (NAO) warned there was “still a significant amount of work to complete”, which meant CDS may not be ready on time. The project reached its halfway point in September, and Thompson has previously admitted it would be “catastrophic” if the new system was not operational on Brexit day.

A recent Public Accounts Committee report found that of the 85 IT systems at the UK border, 30 of them will need to be replaced or changed because of Brexit, which is unlikely to happen on time. 

7. Public safety ‘imperilled’ by lack of functional and interoperable police IT, says report 

Chief inspector of constabulary Thomas Winsor was less than complimentary in his views on the current state of police IT.  In his annual State of policing report, Winsor said there was a “chronic lack of interoperability” between different forces’ IT systems and that until police forces have a “fully functional, interoperable system of ICT networks, efficiency and effectiveness are impaired, and public safety is imperiled”.

Following his report, think-tank Reform called for a £450m increase in the police digital budget and giving bosses the ability to fire officers without digital skills. 

8. Scottish police’s i6 project failed due to loss of trust and disagreements, auditor finds

In another police story, Audit Scotland concluded that Police Scotland’s huge IT systems replacement programme, i6, failed mainly because of a “loss of trust” between Accenture and the police, as well as underestimating the complexities of the project. 

After a troubled three years working on the i6 project – which aimed to replace a series of legacy systems – the parties mutually agreed to abandon the £40m contract in 2016.

Audit Scotland found that the project “ultimately collapsed due to a damaging loss of trust between those involved and fundamental disagreements about what the programme needed to deliver”. 

9. GDS digital transformation delivers mixed results, says NAO

It was GDS’s turn to face NAO scrutiny this year. A report on the organisation’s role said GDS could be at risk of covering too broad a remit with unclear accountabilities and should be clearer about what it wants to do, and how.

The NAO was also critical in its review of the Gov.uk Verify programme, saying it had been “undermined by its performance” and that GDS had lost focus on the strategic case for the programme. However, GDS is still persisting with its view that the target of 25 million users of the identity assurance platform by April 2020 is completely achievable.  

10. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan appoints first chief digital officer

In August, London mayor Sadiq Khan appointed Camden councillor Theo Blackwell as the capital’s first chief digital officer after launching a search for a CDO a few months earlier. 

The move was part of Khan’s manifesto commitment when he was elected in 2016, and is a significant step in ensuring joined-up and collaborative digital initiatives across London. Blackwell is also instrumental in the potential creation of a London Office for Technology and Innovation.

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