2020 - the year in government...and not just Brexit and Trump

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez December 23, 2020
Governments around the world have had to scale up digital services in response to COVID-19, whilst also grappling macro-political challenges.


It has undoubtedly been one of the most challenging years in recent history for governments around the globe. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic meant balancing a contentious health and economic crisis, whilst scaling up digital services for citizens in the form of welfare, business support and contact tracing. All the while shifting to a distributed work environment. Not only this, but COVID-19 occurred in a year when there are huge macro-political changes in play - notably the US election and Brexit. Here are our top stories from across the government sector in 2020. 

What has digital government in the UK learned during the COVID-19 crisis?

Clear political direction can help, but enthusiasm is not enough - As was the case with HMRC and DWP, strong political direction helped teams quickly deploy quality digital solutions. However, this has not been the case in all areas (e.g. the contact tracing app and the A-level algorithm). In short, political direction coupled with investments in digital capability is a better recipe for success.

Why? Although the year is not yet up, we are already able to identify what worked and what didn't within some areas of government in response to the COVID-19 crisis. This story, which draws from a report by the Institute for Government, does a good job of highlighting what are the key ingredients for success when building scalable digital solutions for citizens. The main takeaway? Those areas of government that had already been investing in digital capability fared much better than those that suddenly decided that technology was the answer. 

US and UK governments are ‘AI ready' - but are not being responsible

My personal view is that a country isn't really prepared unless they're thinking about these things responsibly and ethically - the stakes are too high and I don't think those countries that rank at the top of the ‘preparedness' list should be praised too much, unless they're taking measures to be transparent and open. The use of AI may seem like a technological opportunity, but the consequences could be very real for people already struggling within an unbalanced system.

Why? This story gets to the heart of the challenge with using AI, not only in the private sector, but also in government - even if something is possible, doesn't mean you should. There are tremendous opportunities for the use of machine learning and AI technologies in the private sector, but transparency, ethical frameworks and openness are key. 

Data Protection - adequacy and the Brexit dimension

In other words, GDPR itself may begin to fragment: into the UK version as it evolves, the EU original, and a fast-expanding grey area between them, which has roots in case law. All of this adds complexity.

Why? At time of writing this, the likelihood of a trade deal between the EU and the UK is seeming increasingly unlikely. One of the areas that is getting less attention compared to the headline grabbing problems around fishing, is that on data transfers in the event of a no-deal Brexit. In theory the UK is in a decent position, as it has adopted GDPR and starts from a position of equivalency - but can the political challenges be overcome and what will data protection look like in the event of a no deal Brexit? 

Facebook under fire for illegal monopolistic practice, but what chance genuine action by regulators?

Random thoughts at this point:

(A) Good.

(B) About time.

Why? This was a surprising late edition to 2020 - and a story that will likely rumble on throughout 2021, if not for a number of years. In short: the FTC plus Attorneys General from 48 states have filed lawsuits accusing Facebook of illegal monopolistic behavior, abusing its market power to squash smaller competitors and looking for restitution that could well include an enforced breakup of Instagram and WhatsApp messaging services. Will they succeed? 

British government (once again) strives for creating a ‘data quality culture'

You can look back as far as 2015 to see that senior officials were talking up the need for more effective data management in Whitehall, with talk of creating a ‘data-as-a-service' model and the need for more effective data sharing principles. However, what may be different this time around is that the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that access to quality data can really drive different outcomes.

Why? As the above quote highlights, there appears to be a new energy across the British government (and globally) for establishing a true data culture. This has largely been driven by the recognition during the pandemic that access to and use of high quality data can help deliver better services. Government data is messy and this won't be easy, but for governments to deliver truly modern digital services, investments in data access, control and quality need to be prioritised - and it needs effective leadership. 

UK government finally launches National Data Strategy

All of this should be considered within the context of Brexit and the government's possibilities when it comes to shaping the future of the British economy. In fact, the National Data Strategy documentation cites that the government aims to "take advantage of being an independent sovereign nation to maximise strengths domestically" and that it will seek to "influence the global approach to data sharing and use".

Why? The UK's National Data Strategy has been years in the making and still isn't a finished product. However, as noted above, there's been a recognition within Whitehall that how government uses data is critical to the delivery of services. And with Brexit looming, it will be interesting to see whether the UK can lead the way in how public services use data, or whether it will be limited in following regulatory regimes it has no control over. The main positive to come out of the Strategy so far is the government's plan to train up hundreds of data analysts and scientists in 2021. One to watch next year, for sure. 

NHSX to "reduce the asymmetry" between big suppliers and buyers

The CEO of NHSX - a recently established central digital unit to support transformation across the National Health Service (NHS) - has outlined plans in a new blog to better support buyers in their dealings with what he labels as the ‘big suppliers'. 

Matthew Gould has said that he will be providing more commercial support to the frontline, reducing the "asymmetry" between suppliers and buyers.

Why? Reducing the grip of the Oligopoly? Where have we heard that before? NHSX is doing some interesting work - although not all of it entirely successful (see: the UK's contact tracing app). However, it's still a relatively new unit and it's making the right noises. It also has an enormous challenge in transforming digital practice across what is an incredibly fragmented and complex organisation. The NHS is going to come under a lot of pressure in the coming months and years as it deals with the fallout from COVID-19 - NHSX could prove invaluable in providing support and guidance on digital decision making and ways of working. 

How HMRC is using data to reduce risk for the UK's COVID-19 schemes

When the realities of COVID-19 finally took hold for the British government back in March, one of the first responses from the Treasury was to introduce a Job Retention Scheme - which effectively allows employers to furlough unproductive staff during the pandemic, paying up to 80% of their salaries (to a point). The hope is that when the economy begins to pick up again, those employees will be able to transition seamlessly back into the workforce, without having to face unemployment.

Why? HMRC - the UK's tax department - built and scaled a number of services to support businesses throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The department went from one used to collecting billions of pounds, to one distributing billions of pounds in a matter of weeks. We take a look at how it made that happen. 

How DWP managed a surge in demand for Universal Credit during COVID-19

When COVID-19 hit, particularly after the Prime Minister's lockdown announcement and the subsequent financial support packages that were unveiled, the Universal Credit system and the DWP team faced a nail biting test of whether they could hold up against the huge spikes in demand from claimants.

Why? Much like the HMRC example above, DWP faced a huge test when tasked with scaling up the UK's welfare system - Universal Credit - during the COVID-19 pandemic. This story outlines the infrastructure story about how the department handled the huge spikes in demand. 

The government's mass testing Moonshot project looks like a 90s Silicon Valley PowerPoint nightmare

Strategic relationships with multiple potential partners sounds more like my previous dating profiles than a £100 billion government project, but here we are!

Why? Probably because it was my favourite government story to write of the year - my take on how ridiculous the British government's Moonshot mass testing project is/was. Probably the most depressing and yet entertaining read of the year. Enjoy. 

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