1 - Austerity rumbles on
The Autumn Statement confirmed further cuts to local government funding from central government, though their impact is disputed: the government asserts this translates to an average "spending power cut" of 2%-3% next year, while the Local Government Association has talked of cuts nearer 9%. Whatever the precise scale, the Chancellor and most economists have made it clear that a tougher economic climate is likely to remain for the foreseeable future as the developed world battles with an ageing demographic; the rise of Eastern economies; energy shortages and other long-term challenges. And with all political parties signed up to further cuts of varying scales heading into next year's election, the need to make savings from every technology project that councils implement will remain the strongest driver for innovation next year - and beyond.
2 - Health and care unite
Austerity and demographic challenges form the backdrop to our next big area to watch in 2015: the integration of health and social care, enabled by data sharing and ICT. Systems to facilitate new reporting requirements will have to be in place by April 2015; and full service integration by April 2016. This year Socitm with ADASS was commissioned by the Department of Health to disseminate learning from the 14 health and social care 'integration pioneer' initiatives, work which was completed in December but that can be reviewed at:
A mere technical issue? In September, Socitm policy chief Martin Ferguson told UKAuthority.com that health and social care integration represents "potentially the biggest change to affect local government in a long time" and "have not been given the priority they need". This will have to change.
3 - The sharing challenge
A key part of health and social care integration will be secure data sharing: and data sharing beyond many traditional service boundaries will break down further in 2015. This has been a theme for decades: but austerity is now driving real change, and there is new impetus as well behind moves to use technology to design and deliver services around citizens' needs. One of the main recommendations of the independent "Service transformation challenge panel" report published in November was "that local and central government use the person-centred approach of the Troubled Families programme to design services for groups and individuals with multiple and complex needs", a blueprint for future change welcomed by communities secretary Eric Pickles and chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander.
The report - the fruit of six months of research and consultation nationwide - was sub-titled "Bolder, braver and better: why we need local deals to save public services" and the government seems keen to act on its recommendations.
4 - Leaders of the Opposition
Meanwhile Labour's senior politicians set out their own road map for public sector technology change. The party's digital government review team - led by shadow minister Chi Onwurah - made a series of recommendations to its policymakers recently including that if elected, a new Labour government should deliver an amended identity assurance scheme to embrace public sector identity providers and not just private firms (of which more below in this list); publish more data on the performance of public bodies; and weave local authorities more tightly into the digital government programme. Among the proposals is to: "Create a new organisation to work with local authorities to build 'local digital factories' that will deliver solutions to common challenges like planning or waste disposal". It also recommended building stronger digital inclusion and assisted digital strategies to ensure all digital services are accessible by everyone (with assistance or otherwise) before they go live. It remains to be seen how much of the review will end up in the party's manifesto, but we will not have long to wait. Thanks to the new fixed term Parliament system we know the election timetable: Parliament will be dissolved and "purdah" will begin on 30 March; with the election set for 7 May.
5 - The year of Things
"There is a danger of trivialising the importance of the Internet of Things through examples [such as] the 'fridge that orders fresh milk'... [but it] has the potential to have a greater impact on society than the first digital revolution". Thus begins a recent report by the government's chief scientific adviser Professor Sir Mark Walport.
Smart energy systems; health monitors to boost telehealth and telecare; and smart and driverless car and transport system are all likely to see major developments next year as part of the new "Internet of Things" revolution. "Government has a leadership role to play in delivering the vision and should set high ambitions", the review says, including removing barriers and providing catalysis in eight areas: commissioning; spectrum and networks; standards; skills and research; data; regulation and legislation; trust; and co-ordination. Get ready for the year of Things.
6 - Open policy and digital democracy
The coming year will also see a rise in "open policy making" - involvement of organisations and individuals in a sustained, open and transparent process to develop government policy in key areas, compared with past models which have sometimes seemed like they were (and occasionally actually have been) carried out on the backs of envelopes in Whitehall pubs. A pioneering example of this can be seen in the online and offline open consultation work carried out in the field of data sharing to improve the economy and public services.
This work is just one aspect of the wider field of digital democracy, which is also set for a high profile year, with the report due in January of the Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy. Over the past year or so the commission has been investigating possible ways digital technology can enhance parliamentary democracy in the UK. Areas it will report on are making laws in a digital age, including better online access to all stages of the law-making process; Digital scrutiny by citizens of government and Parliament; Representation, including digital tools for direct democracy and politicians' use of social media; Engagement and facilitating dialogue; and the highly emotive and controversial issue of electronic voting. The report will trigger debate into some critical areas for the future of our democracy, so it is to be hoped that ongoing bickering in some quarters about absolutely everything and anything the current high-profile Speaker Bercow does, does not detract from its impact.
7- Government as a platform
In 2014 we began to hear more in one or two pioneering local authority areas (Peterborough, Windsor and Maidenhead) about "government as a platform". This is a term used to describe the siting of almost all technology services - front-office and back-office - in the cloud, and most often in the public cloud. Software is then bought in, by the user, in components, again either as public cloud services where standardised (word processing, document management) or perhaps hosted by more specialist providers. A new book by Alan Brown of University of Surrey; former UK government deputy chief technology officer Jerry Fishenden and Mark Thompson of Cambridge Judge Business School and Methods Group takes this one step further and proposes breaking down all UK public services into generic components, for which shared solutions could then be created or sourced in the cloud - whether public cloud or G-Cloud. "Take food safety in local government. You can break down into minimum viable capabilities shared by all authorities - generic assessment processes, a generic complaints process, workload scheduling, and technical elements like database technology, e-signatures", Thompson told UKAuthority.com recently. "All those things traditionally would have been wrapped together in some overpaid stack and replicated across government. But if you can build a raft of shared capability, then for the first time it will drive business change the like of which has never been seen."
8 - Identity is federated
It will be worth keeping a close eye in 2015 on developments with GOV.UK Verify, the government's new online ID management scheme unveiled in 2014 and just entering live trials. The system is a key element of the government's "digital by default" programme, replacing the troubled "Gateway" system with a federated service under which third-parties will manage online authentication by validating people's driver licence and passport details. Public beta testing began in October, allowing government services to use Verify without special invitation and a small-scale initial trial of HMRC self-assessment has just been announced, with limited public testing set to run through January. The first two providers approved for live testing are Experian and Digidentity, with Mydex, The Post Office and Verizon expected to follow (all five signed initial supplier contracts at an earlier closed testing stage). A European contract notice for the next framework for companies to bid to become identity providers is running to 16 February 2015. Other developments promised for 2015 are a first model to allow local government to use the system. Follow the latest all year at:
9 - APIs for the people
API, or application program interface, is a term for the framework describing how elements of a software program interact with each other and input and output data. Where an API is open, as with the social network Twitter for example, it means that others can more easily write other software which pulls data in and out of Twitter. What has this to do with public services? The concept of public service APIs is already here: discussions between DVLA and several councils began at one Local Digital event in 2014 about the development of an API that would allow access to vehicle-related data in a consistent way by all local authorities. According to our event report: "Many of the councils attending the event said that the ability to 'plug in' to an API enabling the exchange of vehicle-related data with DVLA would greatly improve services. An API could align data between central and local government, easing the administration of vehicle licence renewal, parking permit administration and the enforcement of unpaid parking fines, among others".
There is also an API standard for waste services under development by LocalGov Digital and some councils/suppliers, which in December was judged the best of four proposals at Local Digital's second Co-Design event.
Expect more in 2015, though developers will have to overcome the challenge that APIs could be seen as too techie for the majority of non IT service managers, creating a need for some communication work to clarify what they can actually do. So what can they do? Your research starts here.
10 - Devolution and 'smart services'
As well as the year of the election, in politics this will also be the year of greater devolution. With further powers set to be devolved to Scotland and also Wales and Northern Ireland; options on the table for English votes for English laws; possible Lords reform returning with a geographical edge; and the creation of all manner of local government city regions and agglomerations, the theme will cut across all sorts of others already outlined such as health and social care integration. It will also tie in with a continuing surge in interest and activity in the "smart cities" agenda, an international movement looking at how the Internet of Things, open data and all sorts of other futuristic technologies such as driverless cars can be brought together to create intelligent, predictive and hyper-efficient public services including smart transport, smart energy and smart healthcare. The emphasis has so far been on cities but it should not be forgotten that most of the same principles hold for rural areas as well, and some of these are in even more need of developments such as smart transport: accordingly, we will be tracking this one in our new 'Smart services' series of articles of which began recently with a look at work in Milton Keynes to build an "open innovation environment" allowing companies to develop new business models; and to use data to address key strategic challenges.
So it certainly seems set to be a busy New Year - and we hope very much it is a Happy one as well for all our readers!
Pictured, top to bottom: Quartz sphere at National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC by Sanjay Ach / Wikimedia Commons; Eric Pickles, by Paul Clark http://paulclarke.com; Mark Thompson addresses last year's Socitm annual conference in Manchester; A LUTZ Pathfinder two-seater electric autonomous driving pod, as set to be tested in Milton Keynes.