In 2017, Kevin Cunnington, the Director General of the Government Digital Service (GDS), commissioned a landscape review of technology innovation across government.
Cabinet Office Minister for Implementation, Oliver Dowden, has previously said that the future of GDS is to be an “innovation incubator for government”.
The report published this week concludes that “GDS will lead work with departments to better coordinate, share best practice and drive technology innovation in government”.
GDS has set up a new innovation team to support this.
The research published outlines what innovation means to the public sector and also maps what ‘innovation’ is currently taking place across Whitehall and local government.
In terms of emerging technologies, it looked at projects that included artificial intelligence, RPA, biometrics, augmented reality, wearables, Internet-of-Things, amongst others.
The research showed that departments and local authorities are exploring new and emerging technologies and opening up new datasets as part of their digital transformation programmes, efficiency programmes and manifesto commitments.
These programmes aim to improve the delivery and efficiency of public services and meet citizens’ rising expectations.
Further pressure on departments has come from EU Exit programmes and new regulatory requirements such as the General Data Protection Regulation.
According to the research, the five types of public sector innovation include:
This is a useful way to think about technology projects, as opposed to simply applying new technologies to existing policy or processes. It appears the innovation team will be focused on rethinking what is possible as a result of these emerging technologies.
GDS highlights that the research saw a number of projects across government, which included using distributed ledger technology to secure digital evidence and for border controls, using machine learning for better medical diagnosis, the use of chatbots, and IoT and wearables within the NHS.
The report also aims to address concerns that some stakeholders may have in investing in new technologies that aren’t tried and tested. The report states:
Experimenting with new technologies in government services and underlying processes is often seen as a risk.
The technologies may be untested, have no technology standards in place or are unable to scale. The stated benefits are not always clear and there can be a perception of new technology being a panacea.
The scale of experimentation also carries different risks. Testing a new technology to improve a small back office process is different to deploying disruptive technologies like AI or DLT in frontline services. Examples collected during the research range from low risk, low impact to high risk, high impact.
These are a few of the risks departments face when choosing to invest in technology innovation. But risks can be measured and managed and should be balanced against the risk of doing nothing, maintaining the status quo.
In terms of recommendations for GDS to better coordinate, share best practice and drive innovation across government, the report states that it should:
- Develop and publish a cross government technology innovation strategy for public services by Q4 2018-19.
Build on the mapping work to date
- Scale the GDS and DDaT AI and emerging technologies development programme for subject matter experts and offer to all departments.
- Codify best practice use of emerging technologies
- GDS should undertake more of a leadership and coordinating role on centres of excellence.
- Organise and run an annual cross-government innovation conference
- Build an innovation portfolio of emerging technology examples jointly with relevant departments
The report concludes:
The government’s Industrial Strategy challenges government to focus more on investment in research and development and innovation. Investment in technology innovation will be one important way that public bodies respond to this challenge. It’s encouraging to see recommendations on individual disruptive emerging technologies like AI, for example in the AI Sector Deal launched by BEIS and DCMS. The new GDS Innovation team has a key role to play in supporting BEIS and DCMS and government’s overall ambition to be a world leader on AI by leading on driving adoption of AI and other emerging technologies in government, to transform public services and improve public sector productivity.
GDS is in a good position to do this as it already provides advice and support on technology policy, service design and assurance to departments. GDS Innovation leads the cross-government GovTech programme which asks tech companies to make innovative use of emerging technologies to solve public sector challenges.
With GDS’s commitment to transformation and innovation, its deep DDaT engagement and its technical assurance, delivery and data science capabilities - GDS Innovation should lead work with departments to better coordinate, share best practice and drive technology innovation in government.