Patryk Kosmider -

UK government needs a digital reboot

The appointment of new digital leadership is a welcome start to what – if the UK is to thrive in a post-Covid, post-Brexit world – must become a wholesale reboot of digital government

Nearly 17 months after the government first launched its search for a chief digital officer, that role has finally been filled with the appointment of the Home Office CDO, Joanna Davinson.

It would be an understatement to say this appointment has been a long time coming – it took multiple delays and two rounds of recruitment to find the right candidate. However, the announcement – and with it the creation of a new Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) – is also a welcome one. It comes at a crucial time for digital public services in the UK, which, without immediate action, we may see falling behind those of our neighbours.

The idea that we might be saying this in 2021 would have been inconceivable just 10 years ago. At that time, the UK was at the cutting edge of digital government, and our innovations were something to be aspired to by governments around the world. Only nine years after the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS), however, we find ourselves in something of a digital slump. 

The last year saw the private sector make huge leaps forward as companies came forward with innovations in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of these have been piloted, scaled and deployed in settings across the country, transforming public services – sometimes temporarily, often permanently – in a way that none would have expected 12 months before.

However, other digitally focused efforts – and the highly publicised challenges that arose from them – served only to highlight how slowly the digital government machine moves, even in the most urgent of times.

This is the case whether we talk about Covid – where the approach to the development of the vital NHS Covid-19 app was problematic – or Brexit, where in the first week after the end of the transition period, the challenges in moving goods across borders became the first standout example of how public bodies may need greater autonomy to react to wholesale changes in how things are done.

As the UK begins the process of social and economic renewal post-Brexit, and post-Covid, a digital reboot is critical.

Major barriers

The creation of the CDDO and Davinson’s appointment, as well as those of Paul Willmott as CDDO chair and Tom Read as the new CEO of GDS, will play a vital role in breathing life into digital public services. With the CDDO’s remit, there is no doubt we will see a move away from that centralised, slow-moving approach to digital public services that, as things stand, is failing citizens and must be replaced.

Put simply, however, these announcements – the new appointments, the new office – will not be enough to put the UK ahead.

Over the last six months, the Commission on Smart Government has undertaken extensive work in this domain to identify the major barriers to better digital government. We have identified a number of areas in which action should be taken to reduce barriers and build capability in this area.

Many of the 60 recommendations the Commission makes in this area focus on reforms around governance and leadership, without which we will never see digital and technology matters viewed consistently alongside other top-tier issues. Creating more effective, cross-departmental digital oversight, while allowing for greater autonomy outside of Whitehall, forms the basis of many of our recommendations – and that is why the latest organisational announcements are so welcome.

It will be vital, however, that the CDO role is empowered so far as is possible – and should serve as the prime minister’s chief technology adviser – and that chief digital roles exist in every department to ensure no policy area is left behind and that each has a vision for a digitally enabled future.

This will see a requirement both for more dedicated technologists in government as well as better digital skills among those responsible for overseeing larger digital projects or local services. An approach to public procurement that encourages innovation will be vital, too – setting targets for spend on new technologies and deadlines for moving government services to the cloud.

Better outcomes

It will surprise no one that data is a key focus for the Commission, too. Reforms and new policies around standards, storage, safety and interoperability will be essential, particularly if the government’s data strategy is to be effective.

For all these internal questions, the government must remember that the end-user of public services is the citizen – reforms should lead to better outcomes for them. Many of the proposals mentioned here would see services improve, but it might be harder for the person on the street to point to a single tangible change that affects them directly.

Here, two particular proposals will be critical.

The first: high-quality digital identity for every resident should be a bare minimum ambition. Many other citizens of countries across Europe already have access to similar services, with huge success. We know it is possible and, as in comparison with citizens of other countries, the experiences of the users of digital public services in the UK are worse off because of it.

Second: a lack of transparency and accountability in the delivery of services is unacceptable. When digital services don’t work, the impact can be devastating. It is essential that citizens and businesses have recourse for when this is the case. That is why the Commission is recommending a number of measures to ensure avenues exist that allow for this, including the creation of a Digital Ombudsman, accountable to Parliament, with its work scrutinised by a relevant committee.

This is an ambitious set of proposals, for sure. As the Commission has laid out in its report, some of these would put the UK in an enviable position when it comes to the delivery of public services. Others require essential and immediate implementation just for us to remain on a par with our neighbours.

If implemented as a whole package, however, the UK’s delivery of public services could once again become among the best in the world – something that will be essential to our recovery in this post-Brexit, post-Covid world.

Daniel Korski is CEO of govtech firm Public and a member of the Smart Government Commission.

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