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“It feels like the UK is on the cusp of the next big leap forward in digital government.”

Those words were part of techUK’s staging preview for its Building the Smarter State conference, which took place virtually last month. The event, an annual gathering of the public sector tech scene held for the seventh time, brought together a number of people whose job will be to ensure that the country jumps in the right direction and lands in completely safe.

The heads of the newly divergent tech agencies at the center of government – the long-standing Government Digital Service and the recently launched Digital and Data Central Bureau – have both spoken about their plans for the months and years to come. They joined a selection of other speakers from across central and local government, as well as the business sector.

Here are five things we learned from the day’s presentations and discussions.

There are 44 different ways to connect to government services
In his opening speech – and in the short term replacing recently reshuffled minister Julia Lopez – GDS chief executive Tom Read discussed the progress of the One Login project. Which, as the name suggests, is designed to provide a single, unifying sign-on process through which citizens can access all services across government.

Due to be introduced next year, it will replace and replace, in a very visible way, the little-loved Verify platform. But, according to Read, the new system will supplant 100 other separate account registration processes currently in use across departments and departments, encompassing 44 different sign-in ways.

“Our mission in GDS is to work in very close partnership with all other parts of government to create a simple and common government experience for everyone,” he said. “Other nations around the world are already doing it; the private sector has proven that similar problems can be solved quite easily; we don’t have to build everything from scratch.

Policy and delivery professionals encouraged to go digital
Joanna Davinson, Executive Director of the Cabinet Office-based Central Digital and Data Office, said she would like to see more public servants able to move from policy and delivery-focused positions to the digital, data and tech profession. – for which it is used. as an intergovernmental leader.

The 17,000-strong profession of DdaT covers a wide range of jobs, many of which are not just reserved for people with high-level technical skills, she said.

“I would love to see some movement between the digital, political and operational delivery roles,” Davinson added. “We have worked with HR on projects where we can bring people to DdaT; not all DdaT roles require an engineering degree.

Data literacy should be a sine qua non for permanent seconds
Conference attendees learned that the Office for National Statistics has created a “Data Masterclass for Permanent Secretaries,” in which around 20 executives have so far participated – along with Alison Pritchard, deputy national statistician and general manager of data capacity.

“It’s about integrating the data so that it can be used to support decision making,” she said. “But we also need to develop our data science and engineering [profession], so that there is a way for them to become permanent seconds. “

The ONS training has already had an impact on Whitehall’s existing lineup of department heads, Pritchard added.

“Instead of sitting around the table in Latin speaking meetings, we are now seeing standing seconds using data science terms.”

Using citizen data is a matter of trust
While the burgeoning field of data analytics offers clear opportunities to inform and improve policy and service delivery, these potential benefits must be weighed against the risks inherent in the possibility that the relationship between State and its citizens can be fundamentally changed forever.

Chris Naylor, Managing Director of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, is one of many local government leaders who have considered the potential of the type of predictive analytics that could allow housing or social service teams to step in. earlier to avoid roaming. , abuse or other problems.

While this could both save citizens from trauma and relieve the pressure on strained local government services, it would inevitably “put emphasis on the relationship” between the councils and their most vulnerable citizens, and would require the continuation. a high level of trust in public authorities.

“[We would be] go from people coming to the board and saying “I have a problem” to the state coming up to them and saying “I’m fine”? Naylor said. “It places a heavy burden on trust; it’s a conversation about data, but also about privacy and trust.

There is a good business case for IT upgrades
There may be few or no public service tech professionals who underestimate the importance of upgrading the outdated legacy computing still widely used across government, nor the magnitude of the challenge it entails. represented.

The good news, Davinson said, is that colleagues in government finance are increasingly aware of the problem.

“I have been very encouraged over the past 18 months that the message is getting across – even to the Treasury,” she said. “There is a cost, but there is an opportunity: the business case is pretty good. “

The Treasury will no doubt have taken notice of a report released earlier this year by the Public Accounts Committee, which found that the need to ‘patch up existing systems’ had added £ 53.2million to the costs. of HM Revenue and Customs during the first months of the pandemic.

And, with the twice-delayed Comprehensive Spending Review looming, the case for upgrading Whitehall’s tech infrastructure could be further strengthened by the recent appointment of Steve Barclay as Cabinet Minister, a role in which he assumes the oversight of the digital government.

He moved to the central department from his previous post as chief secretary of the treasury in which, last summer, he pledged that “a key element of the expenditure review will be on legacy computing.”

The GDS definition of legacy technology encompasses any hardware, software or business process that meets one or more of the following criteria: be considered an end-of-life product; no longer be supported by the supplier; being impossible to update; be considered to be “above the threshold of acceptable risk”; and no longer profitable.

Davinson said that in addition to the financial benefits, implementing new technology will allow the government to better manage the wealth of information at its disposal.

“We need to modernize our infrastructure; we still have a lot of legacy and we still have a lot of risk in our old platforms, ”she said. “But we also have a lot of opportunities; do we really understand where our data is? “


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