Despite senior government and public sector officials often banging on about the importance of transparency and openness, in reality, it’s almost a cultural taboo for civil servants or anyone else involved to speak publicly about issues and failures.
The gravely dangerous disease that frequently sweeps across public sector IT projects, departments and organisations has claimed yet another victim. Yes, I’m talking about the culture issue.
This time, it’s the NHS Wales Informatics Service (NWIS) that has fallen victim to the well-known symptom of “everything is awesome”.
The Welsh Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) report into NWIS’ running of the country’s NHS IT is not a happy read. It is dire, downbeat and shocking, but unfortunately not surprising.
As well as problems such underfunding, poorly executed IT projects, lack of infrastructure, and potentially putting patients at risk, it speaks of a culture where staff fail to speak out, and are simply toeing the line, and being “overly positive”.
It could easily be brushed aside as a simple issue, but the culture here is likely to be one of the reason for all of the other failings. As seen again and again in government IT projects, a failure to recognise the problem often leads to much bigger problems.
While many civil servants and public sector employees work relentlessly to change this, the culture change needs to come from the top.
Antithesis of openness
In Wales, this has become incredibly apparent. The Welsh PAC found that instead of openness and transparency, something sorely needed for successful digital transformation, “the culture at NWIS was the antithesis of this”.
It also brings into question what else could be bubbling under the surface. As the report says: “If the problems with NHS informatics are to be addressed, then an open and honest reflection on the current state of play and the barriers to progress is essential.”
“Indeed, it is quite possible that this culture has prevented the committee from hearing a comprehensive range of issues and problems – in short, we remain unsure of the scale of the issues.”
It’s a sad state of affairs, but not an unusual one. In fact, it’s one of the common denominators of most government IT projects gone wrong. A couple of years ago, the National Audit Office (NAO) and the Public Accounts Committee both published damning reports showing projects failing due to poor leadership and lack of transparency.
Despite overwhelming evidence that it pays to be open about your problems from the beginning, it seems very difficult for government to speak up. Earlier this year, I wrote about critical border IT systems which won’t be ready in time for Brexit, where the government’s reaction was simply to shrug their shoulders and said there were no problems. The same response has been the case when it comes to the new Customs Declaration Service.
Now, a few months before the UK leaves the EU, it’s looking like 11 out of 12 systems probably won’t be ready.
What’s happened in Wales, and what’s happening with border IT systems are only two of many, many potential examples of why transparency is important.
Stuffing your fingers in your ears and pretending not to listen, or closing your eyes and pretending not to see, won’t solve anything. It’s time for a serious culture change across the public sector.
Will Liam Maxwell’s departure be the straw that broke the camel’s back when it comes to government’s progress on digital?
Earlier this week, news broke that Liam Maxwell, the government’s digital czar, is leaving Whitehall to take up a job in the private sector.
Maxwell, who has been pivotal to the government’s progress on digital over the last six or seven years, is now going to be working for Amazon Web Services (AWS), where he will be the taking on the role of director of international government transformation.
The “international” part, and the fact that government rules state Maxwell won’t be allowed to lobby or communicate with the government in relation to the company’s or his own interests, for up to two years, means we won’t be seeing Maxwell influencing Whitehall any time soon.
Whitehall sources told Computer Weekly earlier this week that the man has been considering the move for a while, but what will his departure mean for digital government?
Since then, Maxwell’s influence in digital government has continued to grow. It was Maxwell who overhauled the technology governance process, introduced spend controls, and was often credited as one of the main architects of government IT reform during the coalition government.
He was also the man behind the government’s “cloud first” principle, and backed both Microsoft and AWS’s plans to open UK datacentres, so perhaps it’s not surprising he’s now joining the latter.
In 2016, Maxwell left GDS and became the UK’s national technology adviser- a role which involved engaging industry leaders, looking at issues around the digital single market in Europe, and helping to develop the UK’s role in emerging technologies and markets, and created specifically for him.
DCMS and Cabinet Office
As national adviser, Maxwell reports to Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), both of which have seen big changes in technology leadership recently.
At Cabinet Office, there has been a revolving door of digital chiefs and ministers responsible for digital over the last few years, with junior minister Oliver Dowden, becoming the latest minister to be put in charge of digital government. The constant changes means it can’t be easy to deliver on the government’s ambitious transformation strategy, and MPs on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recently launched an inquiry to assess progress on the strategy.
Cabinet Office has also lost both data and identity policy to DCMS in the last few months, which has been seen as a diminishing of GDS’s role in digital government.
However, DCMS has had its own struggles. The department has a huge number of projects it’s responsible for, including the government’s data strategy and its work on the digital economy. Championed by the first Cabinet minister with a digital background, Matt Hancock, DCMS was well supported up until recently.
However, the prime minister’s latest Cabinet reshuffle saw Hancock moving on to become health secretary, leaving DCMS to Jeremy Wright, the former attorney general, who seems to be quite new to the whole digital agenda, not even having much of a Twitter presence.
Who will fly the flag?
On top of this, add Brexit. The UK’s departure from the EU has meant many technology projects have been put on the back-burner and budgets are being re-allocated to cover Brexit costs. Delivering on the government’s digital strategy suddenly becomes a little less important when we have a whole EU departure to deal with first.
None of this, of course, is Maxwell’s fault. He is simply moving on to pastures new, like most people do during their career. However, if there is already a sense of inertia, and staff being busy working on other things, digital is likely to take a back seat once again. Especially when there’s no national tech adviser to proudly fly the flag.
Estonia’s former CIO Taavi Kotka told Computer Weekly earlier this year that when it comes to actually doing digital, the UK needs to get off its arse and simply go to the gym. But if there’s no one around to go to the gym, there won’t be anyone to spot you when you’re lifting those weights. It’s not looking good, is it?
The new DCMS secretary of state may not have much experience when it comes to digital, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give him a chance. One thing’s for sure though: Whether you want to call it musical chairs or house of cards, Theresa May’s latest Cabinet reshuffle has really shook things up in Whitehall.
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few days, let me sum it up for you: It started with Boris Johnson resigning as foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt being roped into replacing him and Matt Hancock stepping into Hunt’s shoes at the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC).
This left the position of secretary of state at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) wide open. Such a great opportunity for the prime minister to choose a Hancock replacement with great digital and cultural merits. Her pick? Jeremy Wright.
Although most people were probably surprised at May’s decision, it’s difficult to speak ill of Wright. Mainly because prior to Monday evening, I had only a very vague idea of who he was. So far, I have learnt a few key facts about our new digital secretary:
- He does not have Twitter. Wright signed up to Twitter in April 2015, tweeted five times between the 4th and 16th of April 2015 and must’ve decided he had enough, as the Twitter account has remained inactive since. On the night of his DCMS appointment, a new Jeremy Wright Twitter account was created, but it is likely to be a spoof account.
- Wright has not been particularly focused on the digital agenda during his political career. According to parliamentary records, during his 13 years in Parliament, he has mentioned the word “digital” twice.
- He likes cricket, both watching and playing. Although he is so bad at the latter that “no-one will play” with him.
- He has been the attorney general for four years.
Ahead of showing up to DCMS yesterday, Wright wrote on his constituency website:
“Very excited to be starting a new job this morning as secretary of state at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, a department whose work has a huge impact on our heritage, the things we enjoy now and on our national future.”
So far, Wright has received criticism for his lack of digital prowess, and he’s only been in a job for a day and a half. He has time and time again been compared to his predecessor Matt Hancock, who was a tech champion in government, keen on driving the digital agenda forward. While Hancock’s loss will be felt, don’t write Wright off just yet. A man, who continues to enjoy playing cricket even though no one wants to play with him, is a man who doesn’t give up.
It will be a sharp learning curve for Wright, but having spent four years as attorney general, he ought to at least be up to date with GDPR and internet regulations. Give Wright a chance to get it right!
Hancock and a digital NHS
Theresa May already gave the NHS a 70th birthday present in form of extra funding, but now she has given them the additional gift of Matt Hancock
For many in the health sector, Hancock’s appointment as health secretary was seen as one of the highlights of the reshuffle.
The NHS has been plowing forward with technology-enabled health and care for many years, and while there has been significant progress, Hancock could provide the boost the health and care sector needs.
The government is in the process of developing a 10-year plan for the NHS, which Hancock will now make a significant contribution to, driving the digital revolution promised by Hunt.
Yesterday, the government reluctantly agreed to share with the public a series of documents on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) controversial Universal Credit programme.
I say reluctantly, because work and pensions secretary Esther McVey, like a stroppy child stomping her feet in protest, said she would not be doing it again, and highlighted that the decision to release the documents was “exceptional”.
It was indeed exceptional, because freedom of information campaigners and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) have been fighting the government on access to these documents for donkey’s years. The department has fought tooth and nail to not have, what by now are old, historic reviews of the programme, put in the public domain.
[Warning: before you go on, be aware this does turn into a bit of a rant].
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see the internal project assessment reviews (PARs) on UC published, and it’s definitely a huge win for transparency, but this is just one battle, and the fight is far from over.
Most of the time, it’s not so much about what you say, but how you say it. And just because the government is releasing the documents, it’s not saying yes to transparency.
It’s not the first time it’s been told. This dark cloud of secrecy has been hanging over Universal Credit since the beginning, and it’s faced constant criticism for it. A Computer Weekly headline in 2014, stated: “MPs accuse MPA of disguising Universal Credit in a “veil of secrecy”. In 2016, a similar headline said: “PAC criticises Universal Credit programme for lack of transparency”
Also in 2016, civil service CEO John Manzoni stated that lessons learned from digital technologies will help improve the track record of all major projects in government, but have they? Because this isn’t a DWP specific problem, this is a chronic government disease.
IT programme manager and freedom-of-information campaigner John Slater has called it a “fortress mentality”, and I am inclined to agree.
Large government IT projects seem to suffer from many of the same problems. I have several times posed the question: Why are big government IT projects still going wrong? I think I finally have the answer: BLINKERS. This is of course a simplistic answer, and there are many more factors in play, but one thing’s for sure:
It doesn’t matter how many times they are told, or who does the telling. It seems that those running government IT projects often refuse to take any advice or criticism on board. Instead, they just plough ahead.
When news broke that critical border IT systems won’t be ready in time for Brexit for instance, the government simply shrugged its shoulders and went oh well, “risks to the border won’t change immediately.” No need for concern here.
Now, I refuse to believe that they don’t see the problems themselves, or that there aren’t people running around Whitehall tearing their hair out in panic, swearing loudly when something goes wrong. Yet, what the public hears is that it’s all good. Even when it’s clearly not.
If I have one piece of advice to any department planning to run a large government IT project in the future, it’s this: Sometimes, it’s better just to tell the truth. If you admit you’ve messed up, people tend to not be as angry. But playing this whole Stepford Wives game of pretending everything is perfect, won’t work when the cracks start to appear.
Back to the DWP. McVey says that it’s “ critical to the effectiveness of the Infrastructure & Projects Authority assurance framework for participants to be confident that their comments will be non-attributable and that review reports will be treated as confidential”.
And s McVey, you do have a point. Sometimes, there is certain things happening in government that probably should never see the light of day. But there is this thing called redaction. If you want names left out, or certain pieces of information to stay secret, you can take those out. Will that anger some? Sure. But keeping all the information out of the public eye will anger more.
The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, so when will government accept it needs to be more transparent?
Politics, rightly or wrongly, has an impact on government technology projects. It’s an inevitable part of having a democracy and political prowess can be used to drive transformation, but can it also become an obstacle to success?
Earlier this week, I wrote a story in which shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett criticised the government’s identity assurance platform Gov.uk Verify.
Trickett, whose job remit includes calling out government on poor performances, said the Verify programme is being handled appallingly.
“Not only is it inefficient and clearly failing, it also brings into question the security of citizens and the accountability of public services,” he said.
He’s not the first to have criticised the project, in fact, even the National Audit Office (NAO) highlighted issues with Verify earlier this year, saying the Government Digital Service (GDS) has lost focus on the strategic case for the platform.
Add on Labour MP and shadow Cabinet Office minister Trickett’s comments, which also included criticising the Tories approach to public services, which he says is “cut them, take away offices in communities or local government, and administrate what’s left online,” and it becomes political.
But is that necessarily a bad thing? Following the story, Matthew McGrory, group strategy director at Six Degrees Group highlights frustrations around the politicising of the issue.
“The politics that inevitably sometimes hampers these large-scale technology projects can sometimes be frustrating,” he says.
“Whilst I understand the need for constructive debate to challenge that the country is getting value for money I feel that the opinion may be misplaced in this particular regard.”
However, he does add that Trickett is right to point out that the project isn’t delivering what it said it was going to, and he has “no issue with that being challenged and scrutinised”.
That is just good governing and is the exact job I expect a shadow cabinet minister to be doing,” he says, but adds he feels the comments are “driven from trying to somehow attach the Verify programme to the austerity programme introduced by the Coalition government and scoring a political goal at the same time”.
“So please don’t ‘throw it in the bin’ because that’s the way the wind is blowing this particular month. Consider carefully what citizens want and any changes should be made with citizens at the heart of it,” he says.
He argues that government as platform (GaaP), the programme Verify is a part of “just makes common sense” and represents a “collaborative way of working within government that has long been overdue”.
McGrory’s comments are fair. GaaP as a principle is valuable, and getting rid of Verify and starting over would probably not be a particularly good decision.
Sometimes politics can cause unnecessary chaos, but where should we draw the line? I’d argue (and please do correct me if I’m wrong) that most comments ever made by any politician, whether it’s a backbencher, a prominent MP or the prime minister herself, are political, regardless of context.
But is it ok that technology projects become a political issue? Does a comment being politically driven make it less valid? And ultimately, does criticism such as Trickett’s hinder or help large government IT projects move forward?
I don’t have the answer, but someone out there must!
HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) appears to have a very different view of how the IR35 tax avoidance reforms are affecting the public sector compared to many of the IT contractors Computer Weekly regularly speaks to.
Over the course of the past 12 months or so, we’ve fielded tip-offs and reports from sources about IT contractors leaving projects and departments in their droves, after having their engagements re-classified as “inside IR35” by the public sector bodies they work for.
Receiving this classification means contractors must be taxed in the same way as permanent employees (by making PAYE and National Insurance contributions). They are not, however, entitled to receive paid holiday, sick pay or many of the other benefits salaried workers are often entitled to.
As you can see from Computer Weekly’s exhaustive reporting of the IR35 reforms, the stories all stand up. We wouldn’t publish them if they didn’t.
Assessing the IR35 evidence
Invariably, when we’ve approached HMRC for a response to these stories, they’ve sent over the same canned comment time and again, which never quite addresses the questions or claims we put to them directly.
“Public sector organisations and contractors are free to work with each other in a manner that suits their circumstances, but it’s fair that two people doing the same job should pay the same taxes. These reforms will help ensure that happens,” the statement would read.
Concluding with the phrase, “Like all tax changes, we are monitoring their effect to make sure they work effectively and fairly.”
Recently, though, the tone of the comments we’ve received from HMRC have become more dismissive, with the organisation now taken to claiming there is “no evidence” of IR35 causing contractors to leave the public sector or that it is harming the delivery of IT projects.
This is despite our reports about contractors leaving the Home Office, the UK Hydrographic Office, and even HMRC itself for IR35-related reasons.
There has also been huge amounts of feedback from organisations, such as the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE), about people leaving the public sector since the reforms came into force in April 2017. But, for whatever reason, HMRC does not seem to recognise it.
The reasons for this are the subject to fierce debate within the IT contractor community, with some stakeholders accusing HMRC of trying to “fit the facts to suit its own agenda”, while others think the organisation is simply too far removed from the situation to get an accurate view of the day-to-day impacts these reforms are having.
And that’s just some of the more polite assertions.
These debates are now spilling into the public domain, following a row between HMRC and contributors to the IR35 Forum.
The Forum meet on a quarterly basis to discuss the how the tax avoidance legislation is affecting contractors and taxpayers, with representatives from HMRC, IPSE and other trade bodies and stakeholders all invited to share their feedback and insights.
At the moment, how HMRC has chosen to represent the discussion that took place during the group’s latest meeting on 17 July 2017 is a matter of dispute, with several contributors complaining the published minutes do not accurately reflect what was talked about.
The matter of the minutes
While a few quibbles over the minutes of a meeting might not sound all that interesting, the fact of the matter is the get-together in question is the first this group has held since reforms came into force on 6 April 2017.
For anyone wanting to assess how well (or not) the implementation of the reforms has gone during its first three months, these minutes are likely to be their first port of call.
Therefore, attendees fear anyone reading them would conclude the rollout has been a largely positive experience for all concerned, when that is not quite the case.
For example, there were anecdotal accounts shared during the meeting about contractors leaving the public sector over IR35 and the detrimental impact this is having on productivity. You wouldn’t necessarily know that, though, from reading the minutes in their current form.
What the minutes do state is that, “HMRC has seen no evidence of significant impact on attrition rates of contractors,” as a result of the IR35 reforms, but who’s to say that is true of everybody else?
With this in mind, HMRC has now offered to update the minutes from the meeting with additional feedback from those who attended, after contributors complained they were published without their approval.
It, of course, remains to be seen if the amended version will feature a wider range of viewpoints and perspectives on how IR35 is affecting the public sector, but – if not – it is fair to assume we’ll see more organisations calling HMRC out on it, if they don’t.
On the face of it
In the meantime, HMRC’s “no evidence” statement could be interpreted as an outright denial by HMRC that contractor “attrition rates” have soared since the IR35 reforms came into effect.
But no “significant impact” is not the same as stating “no impact at all”, and focusing purely on contractor churn as a measure of how the reforms have impacted on the public sector doesn’t really tell you anything.
All it says is the number of contractors entering and exiting the public sector as a whole is (more or less) balancing out. So, for every person who leaves, another person joins, but that doesn’t mean – in any respect – it’s a like-for-like replacement that’s taken place.
The term contractor is a cover-all for a huge variety of public sector positions, ranging from locum doctors and social workers to software engineers and IT project managers, and it not immediately clear if HMRC’s attrition rate calculations distinguish between them in any way.
For example, if a contractor performing an IT-related role leaves the public sector, but an agency nurse joins, there will be no change in attrition rate, right?
Measuring the attrition rate tells you nothing about how much extra money public sector organisations may have to shell out now to replace the people who have hot-footed it over to the private sector, where (for the time being, at least) the IR35 reforms are yet to rollout.
Upping rates and downsizing travel
Some public sector IT contractors, ruled to be working inside IR35, are known to have upped their daily pay rates to cover the fact they now liable to make PAYE and National Insurance contributions.
It is fair to assume the cost of the IT project they are working on could rise on the back of this, which may prompt the department overseeing it to cut the number of people working on it to balance the books. This, in turn, could have implications for when it gets delivered. But, you wouldn’t know that by looking at the attrition rate.
Computer Weekly has also heard anecdotal accounts of IT contractors who, where no increase in day rate can be agreed, are pushing back by opting out of engagements considered that require them to travel long distances.
It is hard to say exactly how prevalent this attitude is within the IT contractor community, but could cause additional headaches for IT managers already struggling to source people with skills and expertise that are in high demand.
Sit up and take notice
What all this serves to highlight is that there are many ways to measure how big an impact the IR35 reforms have had on public sector IT contractors, and how we define these impacts (positive/negative) will vary from stakeholder-to-stakeholder.
This is why it is so important to ensure as wide a range of viewpoints as possible are included and retained for posterity so whoever gets to decide whether the public sector IR35 reforms have been a success or not can factor in every take on the situation.
Should the public sector IR35 rollout be considered a success, this is likely to strengthen the case for extending the reforms to the private sector as well, potentially affecting thousands of businesses who rely on contractors there too.
Again, this is why it is important that as much evidence as possible about the impact of public sector reforms is properly recorded, and why the anecdotal accounts of those directly affected cannot afford to be ignored.
It’s been a long time coming, but it seems like the tide is finally changing among government departments. For years, critics have been complaining to no avail about the siloed nature of the civil service and its impact on delivering digital services to citizens.
The government’s transformation strategy, published earlier this year promised a revolution by overhauling te civil service through a series of measures such joining up back-office functions and improving IT. However, the question remained: did civil servants want this too?
Some are already beginning to lead the way and beginning to collaborate- at least within their own departments. The Home Office decided last year to bring together its Digital (HOD) and Technology (HOT) units to broaden skills, create a standardised design approach, and integrate data across its activities. The move, CIO Sarah Wilkinson said, has meant the department now has more resources to apply to projects, and it doesn’t have two books of work for each project.
This week, both the Ministry of Justice (MoJ and the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) followed suit in a similar manner, by bringing their agencies’ IT teams together as one.
MoJ CIO Tom Read tweeted on Monday, welcoming digital and tech colleagues from MoJ agencies such as HM Prison & Probation Service, Office of the Public Guardian, CICA and the Legal Aid Agency to the department’s digital team.
Perhaps more interestingly though, on the same day, the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) IT team joined Defra’s digital team.
A Defra spokesperson told me this was a strategic move as part of the departments UnITy project, joining up back office functions such as IT across the Defra group.
“By joining up our back office functions, we’re reducing duplication, saving money and delivering more efficient services for everyone,” the spokesperson said.
The move is significant for several reasons, but mainly due to the, at times, “bad blood” between the RPA and Defra (as well as the rather fragile relationship with GDS), but also because this may signal a shift in the siloed ways of working in government. Whether this is a conscious decision across government, and we’ll see more of this soon is unknown, but it’s refreshing to see something finally beginning to change.
As I said before, the government’s transformation strategy is indeed an ambitious document, but the proof will always be in the pudding, and it seems we’re finally seeing some action.
Is this the first wave in a tsunami of change? Possibly not, but these incremental changes to culture across the civil service is what will make or break the success of the strategy.
It’s been a long time coming, but the document we’ve all been waiting for is finally here. The government transformation strategy, billed as one which will, according to Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer, “change the relationship between the government and the public”, is certainly ambitious.
With its five key areas: Transforming back-office tech, increasing skills, improving IT, better use of data and shared platforms, it’s a strong plan. There is no doubt that change needs to happen, and this document sets out a strong plan for delivery of these changes.
The proof is in the pudding
I don’t doubt the minister’s sincerity, when he said he wants to see a revolution, but does the rest of the civil service?
While the strategy promises to change the relationship between the citizen and the state, a first port of call should really be changing civil servants’ view of digital. We’ve heard it all before: “digital transformation”, “culture change”, “shared services”, “developing skills”. The success of the ambitious goals set out in the strategy is so incredible dependent on the civil service as a whole being 100% in on the journey.
Having civil servants on board with digital transformation is by no means a new thought. The Government Digital Service (GDS), has been relentless in its effort to get departments involved and interested in digital projects with varying success rates.
It’s no secret that there has been mounting tension between GDS and some of the large departments. In fact, for the first time, Gummer admitted that strained relations have made it difficult to move forward. However, he says things are now getting better and they are having “almost weekly meetings” with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) which has been one of the more resistant departments to the involvement of GDS.
Cunnington also plans to open four locations for his digital academy – a civil servant training initiative he launched in the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and brought with him to GDS.
But the inertia amongst civil servants isn’t going to go away overnight. There are decades of working in silos and departmental structures. Quite frankly, most civil servants probably don’t see the need for change, and a transformation strategy isn’t going to suddenly revolutionise the way they feel. Yes- it promises to change the way departments work, and upskill their staff, but how this translates in real life remains to be seen.
It’s not necessarily a criticism of the strategy itself. The document makes lots of sense, and is thorough in its statements. But I am left with the feeling that we’ve heard it all before. Something is missing, whether it’s a true drive, or the lack of properly measurable targets, I don’t know.
The Digital Economy Bill’s data sharing code of practice aims to clarify what it means by data sharing and when it should be done, but full transparency is still lacking.
Experts also criticised the government for failing to publish the code of practice the Bill is referring to.
The aim of the bill is to make the UK “a place where technology ceaselessly transforms the economy, society and government”; with one of its key commitments focusing on the sharing of publicly held data sets “to improve service delivery while maintaining safeguards on privacy”.
One of the main criticisms, echoed by several experts, was that the bill failed to include a definition of what data sharing means.
The code of practice defines data sharing in three ways: a reciprocal exchange of data, one or more organisations providing data to a third party and a number of organisations pooling information and making it available to each other.
The modern version of data sharing
In his written evidence to the committee ahead of last month’s hearing, Jerry Fishenden co-chair of the Cabinet Office’s Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group, said the bill seems “to imply an approach to ‘data sharing’ modelled on the era of filing cabinets and photocopiers when the only way to make data available to others was to send them a duplicate physical copy”.
“Modern technology has rendered the need for such literal ‘data sharing’ obsolete: data can now be used without copying it to others and without compromising security and privacy,” he said.
The code aims to address this issue and points out that while in the past, data sharing “has commonly involved bulk data transfers within and between public authorities”, new technology has impacted data sharing.
“APIs allow applications and their datasets to interact with each other across organisational and geographical boundaries,” the code said.
“This allows public authorities to identify or verify eligibility for services and other objectives for which data needs to be shared through less intrusive methods, such as running binary checks against one or more datasets.”
While exactly what data sharing practices are currently in place in government is, in the words of former GDS chief Mike Bracken “opaque at best”, the code of practice recognises that as a transition is being made between old and new approaches to data sharing.
“The legislation is intended to support the range of different approaches to data sharing and as such does not specify the use of a particular technology or a specific approach to be used in terms of the practicalities of transfer.”
Transparency still needs improvement
While the bill does clarify what it means by data sharing, it is still fairly vague on safeguards and transparency on how proposals to share data fits in in with the government’s policy that citizens control their own data.
However, it does state that data sharing arrangements “cannot be established for purposes which are to the detriment of the individual or household”.
What exactly it means by this is difficult to gage, and will likely do little to alleviate fears among the public. As previously pointed out, one of the reasons why it’s so important to be clear on data sharing arrangements is that the government has a long way to go in building public trust- as seen by the Care.data debacle.
One of the programme’s criticisms was that the sharing arrangements were not explained in a way the public would understand. Very few may expect a code of practice to be written in “plain language”, but with the bill being so vague, it’s difficult to see how the public will be reassured by this statement.
The code of practice should however be commended, because it includes a checklist on why, what and how to share- presumably useful to organisations not sure on how to proceed.
So does the code do enough to clarify? It most definitely provides a significant amount of detail that was missing from the bill itself, which is a positive step in the right direction.
However, should the government want to make changes such as tightening or extending its data sharing regime, it won’t require changes to the bill itself- simply changing the definitions in the code. Now, what would that do to transparency and public trust…
Times are changing at the Government Digital Service (GDS). Not only is the organisation moving out of its home in Holborn, its power is also shifting.
Yesterday, GDS announced in a blog post that it is “changing the way things are done” when it comes to spending controls.
GDS’s power to control spend on government IT contracts has arguably been one of the most successful initiatives to date.
The measures, which were first introduced back in 2010, and reinforced by the then Cabinet office minister Francis Maude in 2012, mean any departments wanting to spend more than £100m on IT contracts would need approval from GDS.
Any new digital project also has to meet specific service assessment standards created by GDS before going live with a new service.
While the measures have been successful, they have most certainly not been everyone’s cup of tea. HMRC for example, decided to ignore the assessment standards when it went live with its beta version of personal tax accounts despite failing the GDS assessment.
Ever since Kevin Cunnington was appointed director general of GDS, several people have speculated that spending controls may be next on the list to change, and even end up being managed outside the organisation.
While the GDS blog post doesn’t give away as much detail as one would like, it certainly confirms that changes to spending controls are next on the agenda.
GDS argues that when the controls were introduced “they acted as a shock to the system” and helped government reduce spend. But it adds that in its current form, “government and its capability today is much different”.
More power to departments?
The details on how spending controls will change is still unclear. But GDS does say it wants to encourage collaboration and engagement across government through “communities of practice”, bringing together people “managing governance and financial decisions on technology from across government into one room to test how the changes we’re making would work for them”.
Collaboration has been a recurring motto at GDS and encouraging this is nothing new, but it’s no secret that civil service chief executive John Manzoni is keen on giving more power to departments, and there have long been hints that GDS will begin to step back from developing digital systems across government and rather “support departments” in doing so themselves.
The government continues to point out that it isn’t going to break up GDS, but there is no denying that GDS in its current form is slowly fading.
Revelations on what the future will hold, will probably have to wait until the Government Digital Transformation Strategy comes out later this year. The question remains: has GDS run its course?