The response from governments around the world to the threat of COVID-19 has been one of the biggest public service challenges in decades. The use of digital tools has played a key role in protecting citizens, with governments having to turn quickly deploy welfare systems, distribute information, and scale up contact tracing.
The British government's work during the COVID-19 crisis is already proving to be an interesting use case in identifying what works and what doesn't in the effective use of digital tools to deliver public services.
A report released today by influential think tank Institute for Government (IfG) does a balanced job of highlighting where the UK has been successful and where it has failed in its response to the spread of the novel Coronavirus, within the context of digital government.
The report rightly points out that the government's response has only been made possible by sustained investment in digital capability across government departments and public bodies over the last decade. This includes the creation of standard designs and components built by the Government Digital Service (GDS), as well as the shift to agile ways of working that allow for the rapid design and development of new systems.
IfG runs through some of the success cases in areas such as the UK's revenue department HMRC, but also gives a solid breakdown of lessons learned from failures that include the troubled contact tracing app and the A-level algorithm fiasco.
The report states:
The government's digital crisis response could represent a ‘new normal' for ways of working and delivering services. It is therefore vital that the government learns lessons quickly, understanding what worked and what didn't. Innovations that have proved successful should be continued; those that have not can be adapted. It should also consider how to make any changes sustainable.
As it appoints people to new senior positions the government has an opportunity to clarify its vision for digital government. It must learn from the successes, in particular, at HMRC, DWP and GDS during the pandemic. The government must translate these lessons into a vision for the whole of government, rather than only improving capability and capacity in pockets of the public sector.
IfG points to the suite of services built by HMRC, which includes the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, as one of the notable successes of the government's response to COVID-19. It was designed, built and launched in less than five weeks and as of 18 October it had paid out over £41.4 billion, covering 9.6 million furloughed jobs.
This is particularly impressive, given HMRC's traditional role is to bring money in, not pay it out at such scale. The service is also reporting a high user satisfaction score, with nearly nine in ten employers recording a positive experience.
The report suggests that there are a number of reasons that HMRC was able to build these new services with success, at speed. These include:
Digital technology allowed HMRC to do what it needed to do, but the clear political direction from the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave the department the permission to rapidly and radically transform its operations.
Existing capability that had been built up in previous years put HMRC in a good position - it already had strong digital tools and decent talent. IfG states that digital teams were empowered to work quickly and iteratively, with remote working an enabler, not an impediment.
HMRC also made good strategic decisions with commercial partners, including AWS for scalable hosting and SAP to process transactions.
The department has also benefited from previous investments in user research and data science. This made it easier for HMRC to test its new services with real users, then iterate and refine around specific user needs.
HMRC also expanded its data sharing agreements with other departments, including sharing passport information, PAYE data, tax credit data, and driving licence information, in order to allow people to more easily verify their identity.
Many of the lessons learned at HMRC were similarly experienced at the Department for Work and Pensions, where it had to significantly scale its welfare systems in order to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.
Much like HMRC, DWP was given room to quickly respond as it thought best, it took on more risk in order to quickly deliver the service, it took advantage of existing investments in digital skills and capability, and it improved data sharing within DWP and across government.
For a comprehensive breakdown of the government's digital response to COVID-19 it is worth reading the IfG report in full. However, the think tank does a good job of pulling out the key takeaways from departments' responses and makes some solid recommendations.
The report concludes that:
Technology is not a panacea - the government's dogmatic approach to the development of its contact tracing app shows that ‘tech solutionism' and blind trust in new technology will cause more problems than it solves. The problems need to be understood in order to deliver an effective solution.
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.
Previous investments in people, tools and relationships - As per the point above, nearly all the success stories built on previous digital investments. Invest in the right people, tools and partners.
The use of private partners - IfG notes that some departments have seen success in leveraging the commercial sector to do the work that the government doesn't want to or can't do. However, with the contact tracing app, where Google and Apple set the parameters for government, may rightly create future dilemmas. As IfG notes, how will the public feel if tech giants are setting the rules through platform ownership?
Breaking boundaries - During COVID-19 the government created ‘Project Unblock', which removed technical barriers between departments, allowing them to collaborate more easily. As HMRC and DWP have proven, sharing data is key to future success.
Digital identity - COVID-19 has proven that the government's current digital identity solution, Verify, is not the tool that will prove worthwhile for the future. Many departments used their own solutions and others are exploring new options. Digital identity is only going to become increasingly important in the future and the government needs to set clear direction on this.
There's nothing like a crisis to focus the minds and identify new opportunities. COVID-19, much like the financial crisis of 2008, will launch a whole new agenda across government in terms of digital ambitions. The successes that have been seen at HMRC and DWP prove how critical digital capability and clear political direction are, when it comes to digital success.
What needs to come next, as IfG notes, is a clear vision for the whole of government going forward. Pockets of good capability aren't enough to deliver what is needed. A government-wide approach needs to be taken, with sharing and learning at the centre. If it wasn't clear before to some, it should be obvious now that investment in digital is beneficial for the country. Some good work has been done over the past decade, but not it needs to be effectively scaled, with political ambition coming from the top of government.