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Fixing the cracks in public sector digital infrastructure

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the flaws in the UK's digital government set-up. The appointment of new IT leadership presents an ideal opportunity for the government to fix them

The new Central Digital and Data Office for Government (CDDO) is something to be excited about. High on its list of priorities should be reflecting on the past year and zeroing in on the cracks in public sector digital infrastructure brought to light by the pandemic.

The Covid-19 crisis and subsequent lockdowns forced services online, increased demand and required data-driven decision-making. Those departments that had invested seriously in systems and skills saw the benefits immediately.

At the start of the first lockdown, Universal Credit claims were almost double the total number before the pandemic, at 2.9 million. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) successfully dealt with the huge surge by trebling the future payments capacity, processing 90% of payments in full and on time as of May 2020. DWP could do this because it had a sound, cloud-based digital infrastructure, and good working practices.

Unfortunately, those without the right technology in place were exposed.

The NHS was unable to access basic operational data, such as the number of beds or ventilators, and was unable to track the spread of the virus centrally – information that was essential to decision-making. In March, recognising the seriousness of the situation, NHSX wrote: “In a crisis response, inconsistencies in this data could cost lives.”

The usual process for collecting this data – typically spreadsheets held by disparate organisations – risked unreliability. To rectify the situation, private companies had to be engaged rapidly to help build a Covid-19 data store to ensure all information was held in a single, accessible place.

This is one example, but it highlights a challenge for the CDDO – digital capability is highly variable across government.

In new research, Reform has traced successive governments’ efforts to digitise public services since 1996 and explored the pandemic response to help identify potential solutions to the challenges faced.

Nobody could accuse policy-makers of ignoring the issue. With 24 major policy events in 25 years – including strategies, acts and new organisations – this shows serious commitment to digital transformation. Yet success remains patchy and significant challenges still exist.

Three steps

There are three steps that ministers, and the new CDDO, should take.

First, there needs to be a government-wide, comprehensive digital skills strategy. One survey of industry professionals found that 40% of public sector organisations did not have the right skills to carry out digital transformation.

Every member of the workforce needs to be able to perform basic tasks online. But to press forward with digital transformation, the government needs to champion digital leadership in the public sector – and that includes paying properly for those skills.

The Government Digital Service recently advertised for a head of technology and architecture with a maximum salary of £70,887 a year. According to Google Jobs, typical pay for this type of work ranges from £65,000 to £180,000 in the private sector. This puts the public sector at a unique disadvantage and pay scales should be reviewed.

Apart from technical skills, there also needs to be a step-change in leadership culture, where technology is not seen as the end solution to a policy problem, but the means to getting to the outcome you want.

Legacy IT

Second, the Cabinet Office needs to address the gap between guidance and action on the ground. Out-of-date technology is widespread in some areas of the public sector, despite there being a large volume of information from central government on maintaining and updating digital infrastructure.

Legacy IT has been holding digital public services back for years and will continue to do so unless there is a cross-government push to drive this forward. We have recommended a legacy IT fund to help departments make this transition.

Third, and related to point number two, the public sector needs to get smarter in how it spends. Pay-per-use technologies, such as the cloud, are agile and remove the need to invest in expensive hardware, but money to fund this transition comes from limited resource budgets.

Going forward, how money for IT is allocated needs to be re-examined. In an era of subscription-based services, viewing technology solely as a long-term capital investment is becoming a thing of the past.

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that public services need to be resilient, agile, and able to ramp up capacity in times of crisis. In the digital age, all three are very difficult without the right infrastructure in place. 

For the new CDDO, ensuring that every arm of the state is fit for purpose must be its first priority.

Matthew Fetzer is a researcher at Reform, an independent public services think-tank.

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