GDS and digital government in 2030 - ambitious aims or more of the same?

Profile picture for user Sooraj Shah By Sooraj Shah September 23, 2019
Summary:
Alison Pritchard, the interim director general of GDS, says government has end goals in mind for five key pillars.

Image of Alison Pritchard

With the Government Transformation Strategy coming towards its end next year, the Government Digital Service (GDS) is naturally looking at the next steps it will make, and interim director general of GDS Alison Pritchard told delegates at Sprint 19 that this is the closest she has seen government being able to articulate the end goal for what it is trying to achieve.

In a session labelled GDS and digital government in 2030, Pritchard said there were five pillars for the government to be focusing on in the next decade, to ensure that it gets to where it needs to be. She said: 

We’ve got a long enough period of time to reflect on how to get there, but not so far away that we don’t require pace. 

Pritchard began by stating that her predecessor Kevin Cunnington had started this vision – it was Cunnington who had launched the Government Transformation Strategy.

The five pillars that the government is now looking towards are: security, legacy IT, digital identity, data and user experience.

While none of the five pillars mentioned are revolutionary, or indeed areas in which the government has not spoken about at length before, Pritchard did state that GDS and government departments were not starting from scratch in any of these areas, and that these were more about goals for where the government wants to be in 2030.

The first pillar is security; where the main focus is around the concept of ‘security by default’. This is an area that Pritchard said the government had to start from scratch, in baking in security into the web design and technical architecture of services.

Pritchard went on to explain why legacy IT is the second pillar. She explained: 

The legacy debt we have across public services has to be tackled. It matters because it overlaps with our security challenges. Some of the things we have now are insufficient to be able to manage the challenges that exist in the future.

In addition, this legacy debt would have an impact on economic factors, and is hindering the government’s ability to transform.

We have some big systems that have delivered incredible progress over the years, and we’re now trying to iterate further development alongside the legacy debt,” she said. 

So in the Spending Review we will look for investment to tackle the debt as it exists. There are programmes under way in a number of departments, and at the very least we have to stop the debt getting worse.

You will see quite a bit of work undertaken across the function in trying to measure that debt and considering where progress can be made. 

Verify woes and personalised services 

Digital identity is the third pillar – and one where Pritchard acknowledges there has been a lot of debate and controversy. There has been a long-term feud between HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Government Digital Service (GDS) over online identity assurance – with HMRC in the past openly rejecting GDS’s GOV.UK Verify system. More recently, there has been suggestions that digital identities would be combined with usage data of GOV.UK to gather “targeted and personalised information” in the run-up to Brexit. Pritchard said:

It’s a complex subject, but we go back to the mantra of trusted, joined-up, responsive services and you can see how digital identity spans across all three, and we need to make sure we find a way to progress this at pace as challenging as this may be.

At Sprint 19, GDS mentioned that five million people had signed up to GOV.UK Verify to use for employment checks, benefits and state pensions. The hope is that by 2030, there is a ubiquitous digital identity service across all government services. Jen Allum, deputy director, head of GOV.UK, said that there are vast use cases for the private sector too, including age verification for age restricted content or transport services.

Data is the fourth pillar. Pritchard said: 

What might have started as a sort of context of mashing together large data sets has over time progressed to a far more sophisticated debate around the use of APIs or the ability to access relevant bits of data, or even concept attributes being shared that allow one particular set of services delivered depending upon knowledge of other pieces of data elsewhere. 

This is about bringing together operating models so there’s some challenges trying to find a way to disrupt and engage operating models in more effective ways – I find it quite exciting, it’s quite tough but there’s so much potential. 

The final pillar is around user experience – with the aim by 2030 of having personalised public services based on user needs.

My take

None of these pillars are particularly exciting or completely fresh. We have heard of legacy IT being a thing of the past and of data being a core component of a digital future on several occasions and in many government IT strategies of the past.

The reality is that Pritchard is in a difficult spot – she’s in an interim position talking about the decade ahead, which may not even involve her as director general or in any capacity once Whitehall recruits a Chief Information and Digital Officer. This is without mentioning the uncertainty surrounding Brexit or an impending General Election.

What these pillars do have is achievable goals, and from hearing many of the other departmental talks during Sprint 19 there are some great projects currently on the go which are focused on at least one of these five areas. GDS was also clear in their message that Brexit is actually doing more good than harm on its digital transformation efforts. Perhaps the best thing to take from the pillars is that GDS is not talking up artificial intelligence or machine learning, and is actually thinking more about the priorities it has at hand first – work on those should be the main focus.

Image credit - Image sourced via GOV.UK

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