It's ace that UK.gov 'in 2030 will be joined up, trusted and responsive' – but what about now?

A week of 'big-picture thinking' surprisingly small in detail

Parliament photo by Shutterstock

Analysis In the last week there's been no shortage of "big-picture thinking" in digital government circles.

At the Government Digital Service's Sprint19 event, interim head Alison Pritchard spoke of the need to focus on five pillars – data, digital identity, security, legacy IT and user experience – as part of its strategy for 2030.

Meanwhile, Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden pledged improved online services to free up civil servants' time and save taxpayers money.

The thrust of the speech appeared to be efforts to roll out web analytics on the Gov.uk site and a rebuttal to reports that it was about slurping data: "Let's be clear. It is absolutely not about gathering people's personal data for political purposes."

The speech also contained a vague reference to "getting digital identity right" to improve online experiences (interestingly, he didn't refer to the deeply troubled Verify programme, but did mention its recent call for evidence to try and fix the problem).

And the day before Sprint19, Civil Service chief exec John Manzoni told techUK's Building the Smarter State conference that plans are under way for a more strategic and co-ordinated approach to the automation of government processes.

"There are now an estimated 140 automations in operation across the Civil Service, which entails many thousands of bots," he said, according to UK Authority.

Naturally, readers might expect a certain amount of cynicism from us regarding announcements involving the words "digital transformation" and "government" – which may also be why El Reg's invite to both events got lost in the post.

However, leaving aside the very familiar-sounding headline claims to anyone following government IT for the last decade (saving money via online services, joined-up government, digital ID, blah blah blah), the absence of anything more meaningful was still disappointing.

Even if Pritchard had published a comprehensive plan for ensuring "government in 2030 will be joined up, trusted and responsive to user needs", that date is so far away it would be utterly meaningless. It's very likely that she and most of her team will have moved on by then.

Departments are facing pressing changes now, especially those most exposed to Brexit. It would be good to hear how the 800-strong Government Digital Service proposes to help departments tackle the problems of today.

"It's all very weak and wishy-washy. Everything GDS talked about was design. There's no meat on it," said one insider.

"Getting out of legacy is the key, I find it interesting very few people know how to do it... The problem is they have no real technologists sitting across government."

Another contact noted that Manzoni's automation claims are more to do with covering the gaps in badly engineered systems where users have to work hard to get one or more systems to do something (e.g. where they have to scroll through pages and extract some data and paste it into something else).

"I worry that this is all being badged as somehow 'transformation' – in reality they're extending the life of crappy systems by masking some of the constraints and issues that they impose on users. No one is rethinking the processes or trying to figure out how they should work," he said.

Clearly the new administration likes the sound of digital government, having created the new permanent secretary Government Chief Digital Information Officer (GCDIO) role to "set the strategic direction of travel" for public-sector IT in return for up to £180,000 a year.

But what might be more useful is a detailed plan on how to address the expensive and crap systems of today in light of the unprecedented challenges departments face. ®

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