How coronavirus shaped the delivery of UK government services

At techUK’s annual Building the Smarter State event, government IT leaders from across the country shared stories about how the coronavirus pandemic affected the delivery of services.

Statistical metrics and an arrow showing decline overlay a close-up of the U.K. flag.
Sefa Ozel / Getty Images

For all the disruption brought about this year by COVID-19, the accelerated pace of IT transformation it has forced is a welcomed upside, according to government IT leaders.

Speaking last week at teckUK’s two-day virtual event, Building the Smarter State, representatives from local councils and large government departments such as HMRC and the DWP spoke at length about the challenges coronavirus presented – and its unexpected benefits.

The opening keynote is traditionally delivered by an MP responsible for overseeing the government’s digital strategy. This year, that was Julia Lopez, parliamentary secretary to the cabinet and the minister responsible for the Government Digital Service (GDS) and Whitehall's digital, data and technology (DDaT) function.

Speaking via Zoom, Lopez praised the work by the GDS since its inception almost a decade ago, claiming that without it, the nation wouldn’t have had “resilience of the digital infrastructure and the delivery of digital services at a time of national need."

The focus of her speech, however, was on the need to develop a single sign-on for online central government services.

“Our vision is for members of the public to be able to access any online central government service simply, safely and securely using a single sign-on,” Lopez said. “When necessary to prove your identity, it should be as easy as possible without entering new information.”

She went on to add that GDS is committed to developing new and innovative services, and to improving the quality and efficiency of the services it already delivers. Lopez acknowledged that getting these initiatives off the ground remains a challenge, at one point noting “creating a single sign-on is a complex task, in the light of concerns about privacy.”

Lopez also highlighted several other barriers to progress, including governmental organisational structures, a lack of leverage, and the prevalence of legacy ICT or “technical debt."

Still, changes are happening. In July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided the Cabinet Office should oversee the use of government data rather than the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Lopez welcomed the move, calling it a positive step in helping the government improve its sharing of data.

Business change opportunity

One theme across the two days was how the coronavirus had served as an unexpected catalyst for change.

Joanna Davinson, chief digital, data and technology officer at the Home Office; Craig Eblett, digital delivery director at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP); and Mark Denney, former chief digital and information officer at HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) all spoke about challenges that came with ensuring the tens of thousands of civil servants in their departments could work from home.

Previously, the Home Office had allowed a maximum of 6,000 employees to work remotely. When the pandemic struck last spring, that number went up almost seven-fold. Eblett recalled distributing devices to some 40,000 Home Office staffers in March, likening the operation to working in PC World. “We were dispatching these at around 750 a day to get the volumes up and be able to supply our services to citizens,” he said.

Speaking on the "Lessons Learned in 2020" panel, Yiannis Maos, founder of Birmingham Tech Week, recalled a joke post he’d seen earlier this year: “What's the biggest driver of digital transformation in your company? Is it the CEO, the CTO, the CIO or COVID?”

“[Coronavirus has] been the catalyst for rapid change across organisations, whether that's modernising legacy systems or looking at new technology, and primarily new technology that enables collaboration across business. I think a lot of the systems that were in place to do admin functions or engage consumers were fit for purpose, but actually engaging a disparate workforce requires change.”

Mark Gannon, director of business change and information solutions at Sheffield City Council, echoed those comments, detailing how Covid-19 helped the council accelerate transformation plans already in place.

“At the start of March when lockdown happened, we were able to allow around 500 of our employees to work remotely. That was a bit of a problem for me as I’m in charge of our IT infrastructure. But over the period, we've deployed 5,000 Windows 10 laptops, we upped from 500 to 8,000 spaces for people to work remotely and we've deployed 60 line-of-business applications on our remote Azure infrastructure.

“What it's also done,” Gannon said, “is it's short-circuited probably several years of conversations with services about why it's really important that they adopt flexible and digital ways of working. It's short-circuited that, which is a good thing. The bad thing is, it's meant that we've jumped over all the cultural development stuff that you would normally do in a programme like that. So, I think we're going to have to go back and do some of that.”

Moving forward

For Gannon and Sheffield City Council, it has also provided an opportunity to work with more local partners. By moving from “a big behemoth of outsourced legacy contracts,” he said the council was able to disaggregate and work with organisations across the city on procurements and partner with local institutions like the city’s two universities.

“I think one of the things that public sector organisations have at their fingertips, and need to use more, is the ability to influence the shape of markets through the way they procure," Gannon said. "A very small example is we've been working to make sure that all of our supply chain pays the minimum wage, for example. Through procuring technology, we can influence the shape of that and we're trying to break down some of the bigger contracts and analyse some of the smaller vendors, some locally and not locally, to be able to bid for some of our contracts and our projects.”

For others who spoke at the event, the transformation opportunities were offset by fears about what the post-pandemic work landscape might look like. Long before the outbreak, the UK had been suffering from a digital skills gap, with the Open University’s 2019 Bridging the Digital Divide report claiming that 88% of organisations had a shortage of digital skills.

Former Labour MP Chukka Umunna voiced concerns that a jobless recovery in the UK could result from a failure to extend the furlough scheme and hit middle-aged employees particularly hard; they might find themselves with skill sets no longer relevant in the modern age.

“Young people always get hammered in a downturn but, for them, retirement’s a long way off, there's time to adapt, adjust, etc. But what about the late middle-aged person who’s been doing the same job for 15 to 20 years? They didn't use all this technology that we're talking about on this call and suddenly they're jobless, retirement’s still a way off and they don't have any skills,” he said.

While there’s no one-size-fits all solution to the skills crisis, Maos said there are a number of steps organisations, and the public sector, can take to help struggling ex-employees. He said that while plans to help retrain people are integral, they only provide a base level of knowledge and skills.

“That's where I think we need to bridge the gap between the public sector funding and delivering certain programmes to enable people to reskill and have the right skills, but also ensure that organisations themselves invest in training to make allow their workers to gain skills that are relevant for them,” he said.

Maos cited a recent example – an individual who acquired some new skills in Java, CSS and HTML only to join a company that used a different toolkit. But the combination of the person's basic understanding of programming languages alongside their new employer’s investment in training to get workers up to speed meant this wasn’t a problem.

“I think there’s two sides to this,” Maos said. “Organisations need to invest more in training schemes and the public sector needs to do carry on doing more. They do a good job, but not a great job, and that’s where we need more investment.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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