Slowly, technology issues are rising to centre of the Brexit debate – as they should.
This week saw the publication of the UK government’s Data Protection Bill – our implementation of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Digital minister Matt Hancock hailed the bill as bringing UK data laws into the digital age and presented it as some marvellous new British concept in privacy, when in truth it’s simply our implementation of GDPR – something we have to do by May 2018 anyway because we’re still part of the EU.
More importantly, the government’s commitment to a GDPR-compliant law post-Brexit is essential to our future trade with Europe. If we can’t freely transfer data in and out of the EU, we can’t trade.
But the bill is not all we need. The EU expects a formal data adequacy agreement with any third countries, and while GDPR compliance should in theory make that straightforward, it’s not yet guaranteed.
Earlier this week, business lobby group the CBI called on the government to prioritise a data exchange deal in time for the Brexit deadline of 29 March 2019, warning that failure to do so could jeopardise £240bn in digital trade.
The CBI pointed out that the last major data deal between the EU and a third country was with New Zealand and took four years to agree.
This week the government also published a position paper on defence and security issues, in which it effectively asked / offered (delete according to your view on Brexit negotiations) to remain in all the key existing cyber security and intelligence sharing arrangements in place in the EU.
The UK has a jewel in the crown here in the doughnut shape of GCHQ, the premier electronic intelligence gathering and cyber security agency in the EU.
In Parliament too, there is a growing recognition of the challenges of redeveloping government IT systems to cater for a new relationship with the EU and new rules around borders, customs and immigration.
According to leaked documents, the government hopes to create a digital portal to check immigration status of EU citizens post-Brexit, joining up data and systems from the Home Office, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), and the Department for Work and Pensions. Bear in mind that the track record for developing joined-up IT systems like this is not great.
Meanwhile, MPs on the Treasury Committee questioned HMRC chief executive Jon Thompson about progress on the new customs IT system, without which import and export of goods post-Brexit could grind to a halt.
It’s very much a case of better late than never, but technology is finally being seen as a critical factor in making a success of Brexit.
Halfway through its 2016/17 financial year, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) digital team had spent £60m over budget, a freedom of information (FoI) request submitted by Computer Weekly has revealed.
As of the end of September 2016, DWP Digital had spent £454.9m against a year-to-date budget of £395.6m. The annual budget for the division was £844.1m. In a department renowned for fiscal probity, a 15% overspend would have caused concern.
It certainly caused a bit of a storm for some.
The next month, Computer Weekly heard from multiple sources that hundreds of IT contractors had been let go at short notice, amid rumours of a significant overspend. DWP later released figures showing the number of IT contractors in use last year fell from 652 to 359 by November.
Those sources said they had been given figures of around £200m during internal staff briefings from senior DWP Digital leaders – a number strongly denied by DWP at the time; denials acknowledged and reported by Computer Weekly. Senior figures in government IT – outside of DWP – subsequently told Computer Weekly privately they had heard of a similar number.
The figures released under FoI prove for the first time that DWP Digital was indeed over budget at the time – the department continues to vehemently insist it “does not recognise” the amount quoted by our sources at the time, and points to the fact that by the end of the year, the digital spend was back on track.
“We operated within our departmental budget for the 2016/17 financial year and plan our spending accordingly,” said a DWP spokesperson.
So what happened?
DWP is both a behemoth of, and a bellwether for, government IT. As such, it has been responsible for some of the biggest historic IT disasters – the Child Support Agency and the early stages of Universal Credit spring to mind. But it is also responsible for the smooth running of many of the largest and most critical IT systems in the UK public sector, including the government’s main citizen database, relied upon by other Whitehall departments as well as local authorities.
In recent years, DWP has famously fallen out with the Government Digital Service (GDS), subsequently (and unsuccessfully) tried to have GDS broken up, and since played its part in attempts to repair that relationship.
Cunnington’s departure from DWP in the summer of 2016 led to a major reorganisation. He had been responsible for the Business Transformation team, while director general for digital technology Mayank Prakash looked after what was then the DWP Technology division. Prakash and Cunnington were known to have a difficult working relationship, according to knowledgeable insiders, so the reorganisation was likely to have been to everyone’s benefit.
When Cunnington moved to take over GDS, parts of his transformation team were merged with the technology team to form DWP Digital, effective from 1 September 2016, with Prakash in charge. However, the final details of the merger took time to resolve – and to be reflected in the departmental accounts.
In November last year, Labour’s then shadow digital minister Louise Haigh submitted a series of parliamentary questions (PQs) to DWP, which revealed the digital year-to-date spend as at 30 September 2016 was £516.8m, against a full-year budget of £1,032m.
That’s £62m higher than the spending now confirmed by the FoI data, against £188m more annual budget. The discrepancy between those November figures and the latest FoI figures arise from subsequent changes as the details of the DWP Digital merger were sorted out. DWP said the PQ numbers were correct at the time.
The £60m half-year overspend, as finally accounted for, was clawed back through “commercial opportunities” – the details of which DWP would not reveal, due to commercial confidentiality.
“Commercial opportunities” can often be a government IT codeword for renegotiating large supplier contracts. For example, DWP has been slowly disaggregating a huge, monolithic outsourcing deal with Hewlett-Packard Enterprise – about half of its 1,000-plus applications have already been taken out of that contract, according to James Barton, head of delivery leadership at DWP Digital, speaking at an event in London in April 2017.
When the Universal Credit (UC) programme was “reset” in 2013, it was seen as a basket case, and held up as an example of government IT failing to learn the lessons of past mistakes. While the project still has challenges to overcome, the new UC digital service is rolling out nationwide with few significant reported problems. Under Prakash, DWP is moving to the cloud, and digitally overhauling many of its most critical systems. Progress is being made.
MPs have in the past repeatedly criticised DWP over a “lack of transparency”, a “veil of secrecy” and a “culture of good news”. Greater openness about its digital progress and spending can only be a good thing.
Having trouble recruiting IT professionals? If so, the government wants your help.
Most IT managers that Computer Weekly talks to have some form of skills shortages in their teams, and struggle to bring in new staff with the modern digital skills they need. The industry, through bodies such as TechUK and the BCS, has been warning government for years of a looming crisis where the ability of UK companies to exploit the latest digital techniques and technologies will be hindered by a lack of available skills.
A report by tech think-tank Coadec earlier this year suggested the UK will have 800,000 unfilled IT jobs by 2020. Action is urgently needed and Brexit will only accentuate the problem – especially given our current reliance on foreign-born tech expertise, which makes up 18% of the UK IT workforce.
This is not only a problem concerning people who work in IT – it affects the competitiveness of every company, and the ability of every public body to deliver cost-effective and efficient services. We already know that the digital skills gap costs the UK economy £63bn a year. As the digital revolution affects ever more areas of our lives and work, that’s only going to increase if we can’t develop the talent we need and fill the jobs that digital will demand.
In response, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) wants to gather more information on what it calls “advanced and specialist digital skills” – which in everyday English means the regular IT department roles carried out in every organisation across the country.
DCMS is running a survey to capture data on the skills needs of companies – the jobs you are finding hard to fill; the skills you need; and the causes of the problems faced by employers of IT professionals. Every IT manager should complete the survey on behalf of their organisation.
It’s too early to know what the government will do as a result of this initiative – but it’s vital they get a broad and accurate picture of the state of IT skills.
Cynics might say, it’s all too little, too late – and they would have a point. But it’s also a rare opportunity for IT leaders to influence government policy and to help clarify the recruitment and skills challenges that threaten to hold back the digital economy – and your IT department.
There has been barely a passing public mention from the government about the need for new or redeveloped IT systems to support whatever trading and immigration regime the UK has when it leaves the European Union in March 2019. One sentence in a Philip Hammond speech has been all there is so far – plus some vague mentions of “technology-based solutions” in this week’s customs union position paper.
And yet, an internal Cabinet Office report produced in 2015 and seen by Computer Weekly, suggests that it’s already too late to develop any new digital services needed by that date.
The report was produced by the Government Digital Service (GDS) to assess its digital exemplars programme – the 2013 plan to digitally transform 25 of the highest volume government transactions.
When the review of those projects was completed in June 2015, 20 services were available to the public, either as a finished product or as a working prototype (known as a “public beta” in GDS terminology). Some had been a bit of a disaster, such as rural payments and the original Universal Credit programme.
But the report found that the average time for a new digital service to reach public use – either fully live or in beta – was two years. The completed exemplars ranged from 1.2 years to three years in duration.
Most of these exemplars were tightly focused transactions – booking a prison visit; registering to vote; lasting power of attorney, for example. The more complex services – passport renewals, rural payments, Universal Credit – were excluded from that two-year average because they hadn’t been completed in time.
So the big lesson from government’s attempt to digitally redevelop its most important services was that you need two years to do so. And we don’t have two years until Brexit.
What’s more, the exemplars report said the average size of the development team for a new digital service was 43 full-time employees – the biggest of those studied needed 350 people.
According to a report earlier this year by the Treasury select committee, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) alone may have 24 IT systems that require changes for day one of Brexit. That implies as many as 1,000 digital experts needed if all those services need redeveloping, for just the one large department.
GDS director general Kevin Cunnington has already said that the civil service could need as many as 4,000 extra IT staff just to complete its existing digital workload – and that doesn’t include Brexit.
Where are all these extra digital experts going to come from, at that sort of scale, in time for March 2019?
And so far, we’ve mostly been talking about timescales and resources needed for relatively straightforward services – as rural payments and Universal Credit showed, the most complex systems need much longer and more people.
HMRC is already struggling with its new import and export system for freight handling – and that’s before we know what it will need to do post-Brexit.
The Home Office has been trying to replace its core immigration IT systems since 2003 and hasn’t done so yet – relying still on a 20-year-old application alongside a system developed in 2004 for a trial project.
Cunnington has said that GDS is working with departments to assess their digital Brexit needs – quite how they can make such an assessment when the details of what will happen are still unclear, is a whole other question.
But GDS’s own experience shows emphatically that whatever the conclusion of that assessment will be, it’s already too late to start.
We have read a lot about the issue of women in technology lately, since the publication of a dubious “manifesto” by a male Google employee, postulating that women may be biologically unsuited to a job in IT.
The argument is clearly absurd. If you look outside western countries – where IT workforces struggle to achieve more than 20% representation of women – the issue doesn’t exist. IT teams in India and south-east Asia, for example, commonly have much greater female presence. Not to mention the fact that computer programming was invented by a woman.
But the ensuing debate raises a more pertinent question about employment practices in tech – not about the role of women in the workforce, but about why IT employers hire the sort of men who feel the need to make such specious arguments to justify their existence and the lack of diversity around them.
Let’s declare an interest here. Computer Weekly has campaigned for over a decade for more women in IT and greater diversity in the tech workforce. To us, it is self-evident that an industry that seeks to change the way we all live and work needs to reflect the society it serves.
Now that IT has burst out of the datacentre and into people’s homes, pockets and hands, it is not acceptable to find out about voice recognition systems that struggle to interpret female voices because all the developers and testers were men; nor to have wearable technology for medical and fitness assistance that don’t offer features to help monitor periods for similar reasons.
Silicon Valley is fast developing an unwanted reputation for institutionalised misogyny. Several high-profile incidents at tech companies such as Uber and others have highlighted an apparently toxic culture that favours men.
Here in the UK, there is less evidence of such anti-diversity attitudes, but still the IT workforce is barely 17% female. There are – generally minor – pockets of misogyny, but the issue here is more one of unconscious bias. Even male IT leaders who want to recruit more women are often unaware of their own inherent behaviours that undermine a genuine desire for a more diverse team.
But we don’t hear other industries turning to arguments about biological suitability and anti-diversity attitudes to anything like the extent that tech does. Why is that?
A key element of unconscious bias is recruiting people who are similar to yourself. That’s not necessarily to say that IT recruiters are unwittingly misogynistic – but it could be that they bond easier with men who, subconsciously or otherwise, are.
As Computer Weekly has said before, the only people who can make IT a more diverse workforce – in every sense of the word “diversity”, meaning a mix of gender, ethnicity, race, sexuality, attitude, skills and so on, that better reflects wider society – are the men who still make most of the hiring decisions.
A lot of men don’t like to hear this, but it’s they who need to adapt. Many already have. And it’s our belief that the vast majority want to – it’s up to all of us to help make it happen.
Clearly we are going through the phase in the development of artificial intelligence (AI) technology where rationality and reasoned debate are replaced by science-fiction scaremongering and dystopian dread.
Where once we were told that mainframe computers would destroy back-office admin jobs causing mass unemployment, now we’re told AI will destroy front-office jobs causing mass unemployment. Such forecasts were wrong then, and they will be wrong now.
But the thrill of sci-fi speculation over AI is proving too much for some people. Every development in AI is portrayed as the forerunner to Skynet from the Terminator movies, or something from Blade Runner, Westworld or another vision of a future ruled by robot overlords.
Paypal founder and billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk joined in, warning that AI represented the greatest threat to mankind. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded, saying he was optimistic about AI and attacked “naysayers” who “try to drum up these doomsday scenarios”.
Musk came back, dismissing Zuckerberg as having “limited” understanding of the subject. Of course, they are both right – in their own, perhaps hyperbolic way.
There was similar over-reaction to reports that Facebook turned off an experiment in AI when its bots appeared to create their own language in which to communicate. In reality, that’s not quite what happened – but it’s a better story for sure.
Sadly, we’re probably going to have to get used to this for a few years yet, until AI becomes more mainstream, creates as many jobs as it eliminates, and starts to deliver huge benefits to businesses and society – much like new technologies have for the last 50 years.
There are risks – of course there are. But the same ingenuity that is being applied to developing AI, will also be applied to learning how to manage it, to understand the risks and mitigate them.
Musk himself is doing just that – his latest venture aims to develop a commercially viable brain-computer interface, which he sees as a way to make sure that the processing power in our brains can keep up with developments in machine learning.
We are, in many ways, starting into an age where what was once science fiction will become a reality – but just because sci-fi writers realised that dystopian visions sell more books than utopian dreams, we’ve become culturally conditioned to the idea that too much new technology is a bad thing.
For IT professionals, your job is to understand and explain what AI and other emerging technologies can bring to your business and your customers – and to deliver the enormous potential on offer. It’s down to the tech community to prove the doom-mongering is just that.
The general election has passed by, new ministers are in place, and so the Government Digital Service (GDS) is coming back out of its shell.
As it embarks on a new parliamentary cycle, GDS is a very different beast from the last time it emerged from election purdah – which was only 2015, of course. It has a different chief and an entirely different leadership team; it’s in a new location, Aldgate in London’s East End; and its language has changed too – the emphasis shifting from digital government to government transformation.
This week saw GDS reaching outside Whitehall for the first time since the election to push the government transformation strategy, launched back in February by then Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer to “restore faith in democracy”. The strategy survives, even if Gummer didn’t – having lost his Ipswich seat, where clearly democracy was alive and well.
At a briefing for IT suppliers in London, GDS director general Kevin Cunnington went through some of his team’s priorities. Press weren’t invited to the event, but Computer Weekly has talked to some of the suppliers that attended.
Their view? They welcomed GDS reaching out to them after an extended quiet period, and said it’s good that Cunnington and team wanted to talk to suppliers and encourage their involvement in the strategy.
But they also said they didn’t learn much that was new, and left feeling there were more questions than answers – as one guest put it, they were more interested by what wasn’t said at the meeting.
In particular, the spectre of Brexit loomed large. According to our sources, Cunnington acknowledged that everything GDS expects to work on may have to be rescoped and reprioritised as the results of Brexit planning become clearer. GDS told delegates it is working with Whitehall departments to assess their digital needs in the light of Brexit negotiations.
The brutal reality is that almost everything GDS is working on remains pending those discussions.
Cunnington acknowledged some of GDS’s other challenges too – namely, historic under-investment in data, and a shortage of as many as 4000 people with digital skills across Whitehall. One delegate said Cunnington mentioned a figure of 1600 databases across government containing personal data of citizens, all in different formats, and the challenge of making all that data accessible and usable across government.
He said the new junior minister in charge of GDS, Caroline Nokes, had emphasised the importance of improving the citizen experience of digital services and making them more inclusive. The Conservative party election manifesto commitments on digital will be a particular area of focus.
But the suppliers we talked to were concerned at the lack of any mention of previous GDS policies for working with SMEs, nor about the Digital Marketplace and G-Cloud procurement frameworks. There was also no talk about disaggregating existing outsourcing deals with the big system integrators. One delegate said the “mood music” in these areas seemed to be changing.
As Computer Weekly reported, suppliers also highlighted a certain naivety in GDS’s suggestion that they adopt the GDS government as a platform (GaaP) services within their own product offerings. Most suppliers already use commercial services that perform a similar function, and GDS’s inability to provide contractual guarantees around support or service levels makes it almost impossible for suppliers to persuade their clients to use the GDS tools.
GDS said the GaaP tools are receiving investment, and it’s clear there is pressure from above to rapidly increase adoption of the services across Whitehall, to justify the cost and effort of having built systems that critics argue could easily have been purchased on the commercial market to serve a similar purpose.
The shift of emphasis to transformation is welcome – it’s what GDS is meant to be about, after all – but questions remain about relationships with departments and the willingness of the biggest departments to work with GDS. Cunnington said that departments will be “encouraged” to work with GDS, and that he would take a “collegiate” and collaborative approach, said one source.
One supplier gave a notable summary of where GDS sits – digitising government websites and services was the “low-hanging fruit”, they said; but transformation is the big stuff, and it’s not yet clear what GDS will do differently to make that change happen.
Ask business leaders to state which industry they feel is being most disrupted by the digital revolution, and they are likely to list sectors such as retail, media, music, movies, entertainment, maybe banking too.
But one area going through the most rapid change at the moment is sport. In recent months Computer Weekly has written about examples of significant digital change in football, tennis, rugby, cricket, Formula One and cycling, to name just a few.
Consider Premier League football club Tottenham Hotspur (unless you’re an Arsenal fan, in which case that’s the last thing you want). Spurs are building London’s biggest capacity club stadium, at a cost of about £800m. Right from the start, the club is designing in the latest technologies to help engage with fans and improve the matchday experience for a tech-savvy generation.
Chelsea aren’t far behind (in tech terms, at least), recently announcing plans to create a high-capacity small-cell network at their Stamford Bridge ground.
At Wimbledon this year, IBM showcased its Watson artificial intelligence system to help tennis fans experience more of the action and get better insights into the matches.
The International Cricket Council set out to digitise the world of cricket after selecting Intel to roll out drone technology, connected cricket bats and virtual reality at the 2017 Champions Trophy one-day international series.
The Tour de France is using data capture from cyclists in harsh mountain terrains and remote French countryside to give unprecedented new insights into the highly tactical nature of elite road racing – in effect, pioneering an internet of things network delivering real-time data from complex off-network environments.
And under new owners Liberty Media, Formula One motor racing is talking about digital innovation such as real-time virtual racing against the actual drivers during a Grand Prix. Imagine watching Lewis Hamilton on a split-screen, as he races around Monte Carlo, with you on a simulator virtually competing against him on the adjacent screen. It’s likely this will happen.
Sports fans have become used to the reams of data used by broadcasters to bring greater depth and interest to their coverage, but now that data is increasingly being used to directly engage and involve supporters with their favourite events, as they happen.
If you’re not a sports fan, though – so what? Well, there are plenty of lessons here for IT leaders in any industry. The smart thinking in sport about how to use data, mobile and internet of things to engage with and grow their audience has parallels in any consumer-facing business – and in the public sector too.
Customers and citizens may not always be your biggest fans – but technology in sport might just hold some clues about how to change that for the better.
We are deluged with regulation, legislation and opinion on data protection and privacy these days, in a digital world where personal data is proliferating almost beyond control.
Enterprises are dedicating significant resources to preparation for the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), due to come into force in May 2018. It’s a hot topic in corporations and government; mentioned in any discussion around the internet and smartphones. You would think it’s impossible for any executive not to consider the privacy implications of decisions they make that affect the personal data they store about customers. You’d think…
But once more, we have a justified furore around a tech company, its client, and their lackadaisical attitude towards personal information. In the latest case, the Royal Free Hospital has been found to have broken data protection laws in an agreement that allowed access to 1.6 million healthcare records for Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence subsidiary.
The information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, got right to the point in saying, “The price of innovation does not need to be the erosion of fundamental privacy rights”.
Nobody would disagree that better use of medical data can help bring innovative new technologies to the benefit of patient care, but organisations can’t forget that the data they’re using doesn’t belong to them – it’s ours.
Royal Free and DeepMind issued suitable mea culpas, and stood behind legalese about the deal they had reached.
But at no time, so it seems, did anyone involved simply ask themselves, “How would a patient feel if they knew we were doing this with their data?” Applying simple common sense and human empathy would surely tell companies whether what they’re doing is right – before they get the lawyers involved to tell them if it’s also legal.
Without wishing to pick on the NHS, it does have form here. The controversial and now scrapped Care.data scheme to upload patient records from GPs to be used by medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies collapsed in 2016 after an outcry about public consent.
The lack of common sense shown in Care.data put back a genuinely beneficial use of medical data for years. Few people would argue against the likely positives for developing new medicines and treatments. But the scheme was run with so little consideration for the privacy and consent of people’s most sensitive data, that a backlash was inevitable.
It’s difficult to legislate for common sense, but in the increasingly controversial area of how our personal data can be used by companies and governments, it’s an attribute that needs to be applied at the start of every conversation.
I feel a little sorry for Caroline Nokes, announced this week as the latest minister responsible for digital government – the third to take on that mantle in less than a year. She’s clearly a diligent MP, ranked by MySociety in 2014 as the best MP for responding to constituents. She’s been involved in Parliament with issues she clearly cares about.
But her appointment has received a broad and general response from digital government observers of, “Really? Who?” Her former role as chief executive of the National Pony Society has led to inevitable gags about the state of digital as being a bit pony.
Before the election, the respected Institute for Government called for a digital minister to be appointed, with the experience and gravitas needed to drive through digital transformation. Computer Weekly issued a similar call, as did others.
So when Nokes was confirmed as being responsible for the Government Digital Service (GDS), the disappointment was justified. For one thing, hers is now a junior ministerial position, effectively a demotion in authority after Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer and his predecessors Matt Hancock and Francis Maude. There is no evidence on her CV of any experience of digital or technology.
And given her previous role as a minister in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), where she worked for the now Cabinet Office minister and first secretary Damian Green – and with former DWP digital chief Kevin Cunnington running GDS along with several of his key ex-DWP lieutenants in his leadership team – there’s a perception that DWP has won its long-running battle with GDS.
Let’s not forget how poor relations between DWP and GDS once were. DWP actively lobbied for GDS to be broken up after its former chief Mike Bracken left. When GDS was awarded a £450m budget in the November 2015 spending review, a senior DWP civil servant told GDS leaders they had taken his money and he would get it back. More recently, civil service chiefs had to broker a ceasefire and put processes in place to help the two organisations work together more productively.
So overall, Nokes starts – from the perspective of outside observers at least – on the back foot, with much to prove. Every one of those observers would, for sure, be very happy to applaud her if she proves to be the able minister that GDS so sorely needs.
In the spirit of wishing her well, here are Computer Weekly’s suggestions for some of the priorities that she needs to address in the early days of her new job.
Is the government transformation strategy, launched in February by Gummer who hailed it as a way to “restore faith in democracy”, still going ahead in its current form? If so, Nokes needs to be clear on how it is to be funded, and to turn a worthy strategy with little detail into a more detailed implementation plan, with clear priorities, targets and milestones.
Clarify the role of GDS and its funding
The unexpected general election prevented the Public Accounts Committee from conducting an investigation into GDS after the highly critical report from the National Audit Office in March. As such, GDS has also been protected from responding to the report, which highlighted numerous problems with GDS, not least clarification of its role and direction, and the limited uptake of several of its core projects.
For the sake of GDS, and for the progress of digital government, its purpose, priorities and plans need to be refocused. Is it an advisor, a standards-setting body, a startup-style disruptor, the lead digital developer, a consultant – or all of those, or some, or none?
In particular, questions around the budget for GDS need to be addressed.
GDS promised to deliver £3.5bn savings by 2020 in return for its £450m budget. The business case was predicated on three main programmes: £1.1bn of savings would come from Common Technology Services, which has been largely mothballed. Another £1.3bn was to come from government-as-a-platform services, which have received a lukewarm reception from Whitehall departments, and notably little take-up from the biggest departments that are needed to justify the business case.
And a further £1.1bn was to come from Gov.uk Verify, the increasingly controversial identity assurance scheme that is meant to have 25 million users by 2020 – it currently has only 1.3 million.
It seems extremely unlikely GDS will deliver the savings expected – so what does that do for its budget?
The future of Gov.uk Verify
Verify has become something of a lightning rod for critics of GDS – and not without justification. As the NAO pointed out, Verify has repeatedly missed targets and deadlines. Despite this, it was the centrepiece of the transformation strategy and was even included as a manifesto promise by the Conservatives – a reflection of Gummer’s belief in Verify, since he co-wrote the manifesto, before losing his seat in the election. And yet it is still not fully trusted by departments – as the NAO said, “Of the 12 departmental services connected to Verify as of February 2017, nine also allow access by other means”.
The target of 25 million users depends almost entirely on Verify being adopted by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) for its tax self-assessment service, which has 7.4 million registered users. HMRC clearly does not want to use Verify – but is being told by the Cabinet Office it has to use Verify instead of its own redeveloped Government Gateway online login system.
Several senior figures in digital government privately describe Verify as “a disaster”. Outsiders with knowledge of the Verify application say the software itself is a mess – even if it works. Identity experts have called for a pause in Verify to review the direction of identity assurance – it is such a critical aspect of delivering digital government, and yet outside of the Cabinet Office there seems to be little confidence in Verify as it stands.
Nokes needs to determine – perhaps as her first priority – what’s happening with Verify, and if it continues on its current path, how it will achieve the 25 million user goal.
Relationships between GDS and departments
People close to former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude – the man who set up GDS and gave it its initial remit and responsibility – say he is disappointed that GDS’s role as a strong centre for digital government has been eroded since his departure.
Some digital leaders in large departments are privately said to feel they don’t need GDS, and often deal with it only reluctantly. They are pleased that the spend controls, which allowed GDS an effective veto over their digital projects, are being relaxed, giving them greater autonomy.
But such views are usually accompanied by a willingness to work with GDS if the relationship is right. I’m told that departmental digital chiefs used to have a regular meeting in a Westminster pub, and spent most of their time moaning about GDS and sharing stories about the problems they’d experienced.
However, some have since said that they can see positive signs since Cunnington’s appointment last year – himself a former departmental digital leader.
For example, they like Cunnington’s digital academy as a means to help train civil servants – although this is another area that needs clarity. Cunnington said in October last year that he wanted to open four new locations for the training centre, yet still there are only the two he brought with him from DWP. One insider described the London academy as little more than a meeting room above Fulham Broadway underground station. Investment in rolling out the academy programme would help cement relations with departments.
Much of this issue circles back to the wider need to clarify GDS’s role – but for the wider development of digital government to make progress, that relationship between the centre and the departments needs to be agreed and made to work.
Brexit and digital government
Brexit per se is clearly outside Nokes’ remit – although her boss, Damian Green, is closely involved. But Brexit will have a huge impact on plans for digital government – just think of all the IT systems that will need to be adapted or redeveloped to meet the new realities of life outside the EU. From customs and immigration systems, to farm subsidies, to the proposed new identity cards for EU citizens residing in the UK post-Brexit – there are many, perhaps hundreds of digital systems likely to be affected.
What takes priority? The realities of Brexit, or the goals of digital government transformation? Is there a better way to bring the two together to use Brexit as an opportunity to genuinely transform the state of government IT?
These, like so many others, are critical questions to address. We wish minister Nokes well – she has much to keep her busy.