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UK Gov digital strategy -- sensible but stale, and with a glaring gap

A lack of detail and fresh ideas undermines sensible plan.

The UK government’s new three-year digital strategy promises £1 billion in savings by 2025 across six “missions”, but offers little detail, some stale proposals - and has a significant omission.

Announcement of the government digital strategy last week by Cabinet Office minister Heather Wheeler was immediately overshadowed by Wheeler’s off-the-cuff remarks at an event launching the strategy, when she described Birmingham and/or Blackpool as “godawful”.

As it happened, there wasn’t that much of excitement in the strategy to overshadow – although most of what the government digital strategy does promise is sensible and theoretically achievable.

The much-delayed strategy – postponed from Autumn 2020 due to the pandemic – sets out 21 key actions, spread across six overall “missions”. Each mission is “sponsored” by a permanent-secretary-level civil servant, and are:

  • Mission One - Transformed public services that achieve the right outcomes
  • Mission Two - One Login for government
  • Mission Three - Better data to power decision making
  • Mission Four - Secure, efficient and sustainable technology
  • Mission Five - Digital skills at scale
  • Mission Six - A system that unlocks digital transformation

Sponsors include HMRC permanent secretary Jim Harra for “One Login” – either appropriate or ironic, given HMRC has prematurely ditched the previous government identity scheme, forcing some users to return to paper-based tax returns – and Professor Sir Ian Diamond, chief exec of the UK Statistics Authority, for “Better Data”.

The most prominent action in the government digital strategy is the first: “By 2025, at least 50 of the government’s top 75 identified services will move to a ‘great’ standard, against a consistent measure of service performance.”

This seems like a sensible approach - only slightly undermined by a lack of any definition as to what "great" means. But targeting the most important government services for improvement, with at least some prospect of measuring progress, is a good idea - albeit with one significant omission (see below).

2012 called, it wants its app strategy back

Most of the 21 actions outlined in the government digital strategy are reasonable. But a few stand out for seeming blindingly obvious, unambitious, vague, or years out of date.

The second action in the list is: “For key government priorities, the government will embed digital approaches and cross-functional teams into policy design and delivery.” The first thought that arises on this is: why wasn’t this the case already?

Elsewhere, the action to “ensure that 50% of ‘high priority’ data quality issues are resolved within the period defined by a cross-government framework” seems deeply unambitious – as it means half of high-priority data quality issues will not be looked at in whatever is deemed a reasonable time.

And action 12 – “CDDO and departments will jointly create and agree to increase mobile access to government services through creation of a mobile app strategy” – seems like something from a decade-old strategy document. Again, this rather implies the government has not had an app strategy up to now.

Many of the actions are also held over from previous government digital strategies, including security, digital transformation and data quality. In fairness these are all ongoing tasks - but also ones which never quite catch up to where they should be.

There are also precious few details, particularly when it comes to actions such as One Login. Combined with a lack of definitions and concrete targets, this suggests a strategy which is either not quite finished, or else deliberately vague.

Where is healthcare in the government digital strategy?

The sigificant omission from the top 75 services - and indeed from the whole government digital strategy - is any mention of healthcare, the NHS, or the DHSC. The only reference to these is in the introduction from Wheeler, where she highlights the achievement of the NHS Covid app

Such an omission is striking - the DHSC is just about the only major public-facing government department not represented in the list of services. Even the Ministry of Defence’s “Request a Historical Service Record” service is included.

On the one hand, this is understandable: the list focuses on services delivered by central government departments, directly by those departments. NHS England and NHS Digital are both arms-length non-departmental bodies, with their own budgets and management structure - and as such operate very differently, and provide services in a different way.

(Against this, at least two other non-departmental bodies, the Student Loans Company and the Disclosure and Barring Service, are included in the list of services. But these do not operate at such a remove as the NHS.)

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On the other hand, to approach the government digital strategy in this way is a choice. To treat healthcare as a separate function, without even a single reference in the substance of the strategy, suggests the government does not fully grasp the necessity of the strategy's own commitment to "create a more joined-up and efficient government".

This is particularly notable given the 2021 National Audit Office report into implementing digital change in government highlights the issue of sharing data between the NHS and the rest of government.

"At the start of the pandemic, there was no mechanism to allow a fast ‘sweep’ across all patients to identify, in real time, those who fell within a defined clinical category. NHS Digital developed the list in several iterations, as more data became available. The first iteration, based on hospital, maternity and prescribed medicines data, was ready on 20 March," said the NAO report.

"The second iteration, using GP patient data, was released on 12 April owing to the time needed to extract these data as NHS Digital did not have ready access to this dataset. It took NHS Digital three weeks to undertake the technical task of accessing and extracting GP patient data."

The report concluded: "There are significant constraints that need sustained effort to overcome, which apply to all areas of government trying to use and share data beyond its original purpose. The government needs to address the issue in a managed and incremental way, rather than resorting to one-off exercises, which departments must repeat manually."

This is a clear call for a "joined-up" approach - and indeed, for its part, the health service has adopted a clear and detailed roadmap on improving its use of data, including commitments to use standard APIs and open code. The contrast between the highly-detailed NHS data strategy and the vague government-wide digital strategy is striking.

See: NHS data strategy lauded for “rare willingness to move beyond aphorisms”

Some of the new government digital strategy will bring benefits to the NHS and DHSC in general, on the basis that a rising tide floats all ships. Actions such as ensuring 90% of civil servants are “upskilled on digital and data essentials”, annual resilience testing for key systems, or use of common code, should improve the quality of government digital services across the board.

But the lack of even a passing mention to one of the most critical governmental functions, in the wake of a devastating pandemic, and just days before the health service announces its own data strategy, is not encouraging.

However, even with this significant omission, the government digital strategy is still a step in the right direction. If even half of it is successfully implemented, it will be a marked improvement over the current state of affairs.