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Why digital government in the UK needs to be more 'un-British' if it is to succeed

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett March 27, 2024
Summary:
Estonia and Denmark have paved the way in e-government, but it’s been enabled by “terribly un-British” legal enforcement

An image of Houses of Parliament

The UK government is still struggling to get digital right. E-government in Britain tends to conjure up visions of wasted millions on IT systems that don’t work rather than examples of streamlined, simplified digital services.

At Tech Show London earlier this month, we heard from two government digital experts shedding light on why the UK struggles so much to provide joined-up services and move away from archaic processes.

Previously, we outlined successes the government is seeing from introducing technology in prisons, and progress it’s making with AI. But the government digital experts also shared how outdated attitudes to data-sharing and digitized services are holding back the UK, and potential ways these could be overcome. 

Tom Read, CEO, Government Digital Services (GDS) held up Estonia and Denmark as great models for e-government. Estonia introduced the only-once principle into law more than a decade ago. This prohibits the creation of separate databases for collecting the same data and requiring companies to provide information that is already entered in a public database. Estonia’s health sector also uses the once-only principle, with electronic health data all managed via a central database. Read noted:

This means that if you've already told the Government a bit of information, like your address, your age, your status, another department is not allowed to ask you again. It's a cool bit of legislation because they didn't legislate that you've got to build API-driven products. They said, 'You can't ask again'.

In response, all public departments and agencies worked together to build X-Road, which Read compared to a service bus for government. Currently, Estonia offers more than 3,000 e-services and manages 2.2 billion transactions per year via X-Road. Read said:

They've got a register of humans, schools, houses and cars, and they have foreign keys and you connect the data up.

Denmark is exploring a similar Citizen-Centric Once-Only approach, including rolling out a two-layer National Identity and Digital Signature Scheme for identity and data-sharing. Read shared an example of how outdated the UK approach can seem in the face of these more enlightened models:

I was with the Digital Minister for Denmark recently, and I was talking about one of our products, which is digitizing PDF forms. She said, 'Why are you building forms, do you not have this information already?' It's quite a hard question to answer. Because what she meant was, you've got the data, on your app it should tell you that you are eligible for these things, do you want to sign up or not? That's a compelling vision.

Complex

Adopting this approach in the UK would be a more complex process than elsewhere, according to Gina Gill, Chief Digital and Information Officer at the Ministry of Justice. She explained: 

One of the things that makes that difficult in the UK versus in Denmark or Estonia is that we as government aren't one entity. In Estonia, in Denmark, it is simpler in some ways because government is one thing and you can share data across it. In the UK, government is many different legal entities. 

Hence, data-sharing agreements are mandatory before different government departments are able to share data with each other. Gill added:

This makes it more difficult. It took us two years to negotiate an agreement with another government department to get some data to check for eligibility for legal aid. Two years of negotiation within government data sharing.

Estonia and Denmark have both been aided by their propensity to use legislation to enforce uptake of and simplifying of digital services. For example, Denmark introduced legislation banning departments and agencies from sending letters to people. In the UK, government sends out hundreds of millions of letters to citizens every year. Read added:

They said, 'You're not allowed to do that!' That forced people to adopt a common digital mailbox to interact with the government. None of this is rocket science, but the legislation made that happen. In the UK, we don't run the government or the civil service that way. We don't tend to legislate to force other departments to do things. It's terribly un-British.  Instead, we try to build a combination of consensus and mandates.

This is the case with the UK’s Digital Identity Service. Every department has to adopt the service, which offers one log-in to the government. But as Read observed:

It's been put into their objectives. It's not law.

Tasks

Another way of overcoming these challenges is to stop viewing the government as siloed agencies and departments. When individuals interact with government, they’re not prompted by wanting an interaction with the DWP or the Home Office that day; they want to fulfil a task - renew a passport or find out how much tax refund they’re due. Read explained:

You're just trying to get something done. We need to almost obfuscate the organizational structure of government and start thinking of life events and whole services and start incentivizing departments to join in on those things.

Part of that was achieved with the launch of the gov.uk site, which saw 1,800 different government websites shut down and funnelled into one place. But Read added:

We haven't done that at a service level yet. The incentive structure is tricky. It's quite similar if you are in a corporate environment and you have an HQ or a group role, how do you incentivize all the individual businesses to follow. It's hard. It's incentives, mandates, centralizing some of the funding.

Gill, who worked in financial services for a number of years before joining the Civil Service, said the incentive structure in government is very different from the commercial world:

It doesn’t feel geared up towards the right things. It feels very geared towards managing risk. I'm not saying we shouldn't manage risk as government, but you need to balance that with quality of service and user experience. I don't think we do that very well.

The focus of e-government needs to shift to the end-service being provided to users and the experience of that user through a whole series of interactions, Gill explained:

As digital people, as well as operational colleagues and policy colleagues, we focus on - this is my area, this is the service, or this is the product that I'm responsible for. That's where you can make this bit great, but if the bit next to it isn't great, then you're flitting between a great digital service to a paper service to a digital service. We're not thinking about the whole user journey through a set of services. That’s really important.

Gill recalled a visit from Victor Dominello, then New South Wales Minster for Customer Service, prior to the pandemic. Dominello, she said, was the only Minister she’s ever met who sat there talking about the service his department had delivered. He had access to an app with live data on numbers of applications, processing times and live comments from the public, and could view all this data on his phone. Gill said:

That's the level of excitement that we need to create in ministers, about the actual service and not just about the legislative process and the policy. Somewhere along the line, we've tipped the balance hugely in favor of policy and legislation, and forgotten about the service part.

My take

The challenge for UK government and civil service is to find a way to tip the balance back towards service and get Ministers excited about digital government. We may be here some time...

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