In 2011, the UK Government created the Government Digital Service (GDS) to sit within the Cabinet Office. It was created to implement the then Government’s “digital by default” strategy. The core purposes of GDS were to: save money; centralise information via a single website; and improve the user experience of Government. In 2017, the UK Government announced its intentions to transform its operations in the Government Transformation Strategy, which sought to use technology to transform Government, making it more responsive to change and the needs of citizens, and putting more power into the hands of the citizen.
The UK Government has consistently been placed in the top five in the United Nations e-Government survey. In 2016 the UK was ranked number one in this survey, but fell to fourth behind Denmark, Australia and South Korea in 2018. In our inquiry we heard concerns that the UK had lost momentum in its digitisation agenda.
The UK Government can learn from other international examples of best practice, such as Estonia where citizens have a single unique identifier. We conclude that single unique identifiers for citizens can transform the efficiency and transparency of Government services. We welcome the Government’s announcement in June 2019 that it will consult shortly on digital identity. While we recognise that in the UK there are concerns about some of the features of a single unique identifier, as demonstrated by the public reaction to the 2006 Identity Card Act, we believe that the Government should recognise the value of consistent identity verification. The Government should facilitate a national debate on single unique identifiers for citizens to use for accessing public services along with the right of the citizen to know exactly what the Government is doing with their data.
We find in this Report that data-sharing is key to ensuring that digital Government can be transformative. It enables departments to work together to produce efficient public services that work for the citizen, thus improving the citizen-Government relationship. We welcome the Government commencing phase one of developing its National Data Strategy. DCMS should conduct an audit of data-sharing amongst Government departments to see where best practice is taking place, and identify which departments are particularly siloed. This audit should be completed and published in advance of the National Data Strategy being published in Winter 2020.
We welcome the steps that the Government has taken to enhance public trust in data use, including the establishment of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. However, we are concerned that the Government might be taking an overly-cautious approach and second-guessing citizens’ views on how their data should be used. DCMS should ensure that the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation annually assesses public opinion on Government data use. This review should start in summer 2019 and should aim to report by Spring 2020.
Leadership of the digital Government agenda and a loss of momentum were recurrent themes within our evidence. We conclude that political leadership in digitisation has been lacking in recent years since Francis Maude ceased being Minister for the Cabinet Office. This, coupled with the departure of senior Civil Service figures in GDS, has resulted in a slowing in the Government’s digital momentum, as evidenced by other countries overtaking the UK in international rankings. To address this issue, we propose that the Government should introduce a ministerial digital champion in every department by the end of 2019 who has responsibility for using innovation and digitisation to transform the way their department operates.
Concern was also raised about the role of GDS. Although GDS made good progress in its early years on standards and platforms that applied across Government, we heard how GDS has “lost its way somewhat” and its purpose is now less clear. GDS’s purpose should be twofold: to provide advice to departments when needed, but also to devise and enforce minimum standards to be applied consistently across Government digital services. Departments, with the relevant capacity, should retain the ability to develop platforms and software.
In April 2018 responsibility for data policy and governance was moved to DCMS from the Cabinet Office/Government Digital Service. It is too early to tell if the move of data policy to DCMS presents a challenge or an enhancement for Government digitisation. We urge the Government to keep under review whether DCMS should be the lead department for open data and data ethics, governance and sharing and set out whether DCMS requires any additional powers to drive data reform across Government. If it does not deem this necessary it should set out why.
Further, we heard that legacy systems present a significant barrier to effective Government transformation and digitisation. We acknowledge the attempts of the Government, its predecessors and individual departments to produce guidance and to deal with legacy issues. However, the same issues frequently recur, suggesting that the Government and GDS’s advice has not been fully implemented. We acknowledge that there is a significant cost attached to the replacement of legacy systems, which the Treasury must resource adequately. We recommend that GDS conduct an audit of all legacy systems across Government, including where they are based, what actions to take, the expected cost of such action and the resulting timescales. GDS’s framework of retain (do nothing), retire (drop), re-host (lift and shift), repurchase (shop and drop), re-platform (life and shape) should be used to determine what actions to take with each legacy system. The audit should assess which approach is most realistic but ‘retain’ should not be used widely as the proposed action in the long-term as there is clear evidence that the legacy system issue is going to increase over time and there are challenges with regard to the skills for supporting such systems.
Responsibility in Government for cyber security policy is spread between departments to ensure checks and balances are in place, but we are concerned that this may result in a lack of accountability for specific incidents. We support the 2018 recommendation of our colleagues on the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy that there should be a Minister for Cyber Security.
Shortage of digital skills is an issue that affects the digital workforce in both the public and private sector. The Government, including GDS, has made good attempts to tackle the digital skills shortage, through academies, creating job roles and considering progression pay. Nonetheless, more action is needed. The Government should publish a strategy by mid-2020, covering how it intends to make digital skills sustainable.
Another factor which impacts the Government’s ability to transform is procurement. The Government has introduced initiatives, such as G-Cloud, the Digital Marketplace and the GovTech Catalyst Fund, to try and open up digital/IT procurements to a broader pool of bidders. These have helped to partially overcome some barriers involved in procurement, including engagement with SMEs. However, further innovation in procurement is needed to encourage involvement from start-ups and SMEs so that their strengths can be drawn on to enable transformation. In this Report we recommend several actions, including:
Published: 10 July 2019