What next for government policy on tech - Eddie Copeland

Tech Policy

The UK Digital Strategy: big ambitions, small details

13 Apr , 2017  

On 1st March the Government finally published its much-anticipated UK Digital Strategy. Its aim is to “create a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone”. That’s ambitious stuff. What should we make of its provisions for the public sector?

On digital government, there are some noticeable and pleasing changes in language that address some of the key critiques made of the Government Digital Service (GDS).

In its ambition to deliver Government as a Platform, the strategy states an aim to use “commodity hardware or cloud-based software instead of building something that is needlessly government specific.” That’s good news. While there are some tools that may have to be developed in-house, using the best off-the-shelf products is vital if government is to benefit (as every other sector does) from the best and most cost effective innovations the market can provide. Let’s not forget that GDS was founded on a realisation that the old world of procuring huge, custom IT systems provided by large IT firms was not always delivering the value promised. Little will be gained by replacing bespoke IT developed by external suppliers with bespoke IT developed in-house.

The strategy also broadens the definition of users of digital services, noting that “some users will interact with government through third-party services that use government APIs”. Again that’s welcome. Ensuring that third-parties can plug into government systems is a wholly sensible way to better serve citizens, and also means new services can be designed that cater to more specific needs, without waiting for government to create them.

And then there’s the focus on developing the skills of civil service staff, “making sure digital experts understand government” and that “civil servants of other professions understand digital”. Amen to that. Digital tools will only make a difference when they are accompanied by a workforce with the talents to use them.

On the subject of data, however, the picture looks more mixed.

The strategy commits to opening up many more datasets – both from government and business – over the coming years, all of which is welcome. But it fails to say anything about how government plans to help innovators outside of government turn ‘open data’ into genuinely useful products and services. The only case study given is, yet again, CityMapper. Yes, it’s a genuine success story, but one notable for its rarity. If we really want to be able to list dozens more examples like it in the coming years, it’s not enough merely to publish open data. Government must invest in providing context and support, and offer to collaborate with others on its datasets.

The single best way to improve the quality of open data is for government to use its own – to inform better decisions, to improve services and to target its resources more effectively. By doing so, the quality, frequency and scale of what it can realise publicly will naturally increase. It’s therefore positive that the strategy commits to using data “to its maximum potential within government to provide more efficient and responsive public services.” To achieve this, it highlights a need to strengthen data infrastructure, referring to “the assets, technology, processes, and organisations that not only create data, but open it up and allow it to be shared.” These are nice words. It would be have been even better to see some detail on how the vision is to be achieved.

There are also some missing pieces. If government really wants to make data central to delivering better services, it must acknowledge that around 700 of these are delivered by local authorities. Other than some provisions in the Digital Economy Bill to make accessing and sharing data easier, there’s no mention of how councils will be supported in making better use of data. With the sector facing a £12.4bn funding shortfall by 2020, it’s not sufficient merely to publish guidance. Central government needs to support local authorities in developing new ways of using data that give them a real chance of reforming services.

Two approaches might help. First, at Nesta, we’ve be working with a variety of UK regions to pilot Offices of Data Analytics – small teams capable of joining up, analysing and acting upon data at a city scale. Early signs are that the approach works – but scaling it will require long term funding. Second – and given the high demand for skilled data analysts – government could train up and pay for a pool of data scientists who could be seconded to local authorities for six months at a time, designing new processes and upskilling local staff.

Despite these omissions, it’s good that this strategy has finally seen the light of day, and that the Government continues seriously to think about the role of digital and data. Its intentions are headed in the right direction. But now all efforts must be focused on moving from broad aspirations to specific and concrete actions.

This article first appeared in Public Sector Executive.

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