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Building a 21st century digital government

Keegan McBride and Nathan Davies
Keegan McBride and Nathan Davies
Image source: Oxford Internet Institute

Opinion: Keegan McBride and Nathan Davies of the Oxford Internet Institute highlight the necessity of interoperability and data exchange

In today’s increasingly digital world, governments must become digital themselves.

Key decision makers who delay making digitalisation a strategic priority will create a future defined by decreasing government performance and citizen satisfaction, declining geopolitical influence, increasing costs, and growing cyber security risks. It is essential for policy makers to start laying the foundations for a strong, robust, and resilient digital government today.

While the United Kingdom has historically been at the forefront of digitalisation and occupied leading positions in numerous digital government indices, this innovation and success has slowed. When it comes to digitalisation in the UK, there is still a lot to do.

The reasons to support digitalisation and modernisation are many. Importantly, they are also – for the most part – rather non-partisan.

Transforming operational environment

The problems and challenges that governments face today are becoming increasingly interconnected, complex, and larger in scale. The Covid-19 pandemic provided a clear example of this, and demonstrated that governments that were able to function digitally performed better than those that were not.

Citizen expectations are also changing. As digital technologies are now widely available, most people are used to private sector services working online, seamlessly, and effectively. Unsurprisingly, they now begin to expect the same from their governments as well.

Inside the public sector, governments are facing numerous emerging crises as well. Workforces are ageing and government is seeing a decrease in attractiveness as an employer. While this is broadly true across sectors, it is even more striking for important technical positions, growing an already large skills gap.

At the same time, many governments need to both cut costs and increase productivity.

To solve these problems and better meet the future’s challenges, governments must digitalise. Around the world, countries are looking to global digital leaders for inspiration on how to build, implement, and govern an innovative and successful digital government.

The UK’s (lack of) ambitions

The UK is well positioned to demonstrate what it means to be a digital government leader in the 21st century. Unfortunately, in advance of the upcoming election, this vision is not clearly seen in the political manifestos of either of the leading political parties. Notwithstanding the “promising consensus on tech’s critical role”, the policy offerings of the manifestos do not meet the scale of the digital challenges that the UK currently faces.

Instead, there are specific commitments to upskill civil servants, using a specific technology (artificial intelligence) to modernise the NHS, and to invest in the continued spread of broadband access. These individual commitments also face the uncertainty of a constrained fiscal environment, and some policy promises may have to be delayed or deprioritised.

These are important goals, but they present an oversimplified view of digitalisation, which is much more than using a new and emerging technology like AI or delivering a service online. Piecemeal policies within specific government silos are not sufficient.

Instead, successful digitalisation will require a strong commitment from key decision makers and a holistic approach: embracing the positive potential of digital technologies, modernising business processes, upskilling civil servants and, importantly, investing in the creation and maintenance of robust digital infrastructure. This transformation will not be easy, but it is necessary.

Infrastructure, data exchange and interoperability

A crucial aspect of this transformation is developing digital infrastructure that supports the exchange and movement of data and the interoperability of digital systems. Without such infrastructure building an innovative and successful digital government is impossible.

The UK is not an exception to this rule.

When it comes to using data to make decisions, the UK is a below average performer. This not only limits the ability of policy makers to make decisions supported by data, but also limits the potential for digital innovation within the public sector.

When one understands that the UK’s digital infrastructure is not fit for purpose, its consistently poor performance in the use of data makes sense. Instead, what we see today is that the many antiquated digital systems the country relies on are increasing costs, introducing new cyber risks, and harming service users – even costing some their lives.

These problems will not be fixed by technology alone, but getting the foundational technology part correct is a key step in the right direction. While the UK Government has made initial progress on addressing data exchange and interoperability through the recently launched Integrated Data Service, there is much more to be done.


There are several steps that the incoming Government could take to support the creation of a well functioning digital infrastructure for data exchange and interoperability.

First, the Government must support the creation and maintenance of key base registries, which are “a trusted and authoritative source of information, which can and should be digitally reused by others”.

Though the Government Digital Service previously developed digital registers, this initiative has been abandoned and is only tangentially related.

By creating key base registries, and providing their respective owners with appropriate resources to develop and maintain them, the UK would lay the foundations for further digital innovation. The benefits of such registers would include better data quality, decreased administrative burdens, and set the foundations for future digital innovation.

The second key step, built on top of these key base registries, would be to adopt the once only principle and commit to the concept of interoperability by default.

Both of these are key to driving the successful digital transformation of the public sector. The former can be defined as “citizens and businesses providing diverse data only once in contact with public administrations” who then “take actions to internally share and re-use these data”. One example of this already seen in the UK is the Tell Us Once service.

The latter principle was clearly outlined in the 2017 Tallinn Declaration on e-Government and can be understood as a commitment to ensure that all newly developed digital government services are built with interoperability in mind from the beginning, working with open standards and open source solutions, and encouraging their broader re-use. Of course, it is far easier to do this with new services, as there are additional challenges and costs when retrospectively trying to build interoperability into existing systems.

The third key step would be to support the development and mandate the use of a new government data exchange and interoperability platform.

The UK has often discussed the importance of interoperability and data exchange in the past. The past two decades are littered with policy papers and strategies trying to ‘modernise’ government data (1999), open data up to citizens (2012), create API standards (2017), better integrate data platforms (2020), and foster interoperability in health and social care to save lives (2022). Despite some progress, many initiatives have often fallen short, hampered by fragmented leadership, legacy IT systems, under-resourced capacity and legal and privacy concerns.

Ultimately, a decision must be made about what the future government data exchange and interoperability platform for the UK will look like and its usage must be enforced.

There are numerous examples of what such a platform can look like. While many in the UK highlight its complex governance structure as a barrier, a recent 20-country comparative study outlined several emerging approaches to developing interoperability at scale. In many of these cases, countries had equally complex governance structures.

By adopting an open and interoperable approach, it will be possible to build a successful platform that enables new opportunities for innovation, empowers the public sector, and drives the proliferation of an increasingly digital public sector.

Benefits of interoperable government

Though fixing the UK’s digital government will require substantial reforms, getting the technological foundations right by investing in digital infrastructure, data exchange, and interoperability is likely to bring about substantial benefits.

Recent research from the Alan Turing Institute and the University of Oxford has helped to quantify this potential by estimating that “UK central government conducts approximately one billion citizen facing transactions per year… of which approximately 143 million are complex repetitive transactions”, and further argued that “84% of these complex transactions are highly automatable”.

In Estonia, a country that already succeeded in creating a well functioning government interoperability and data exchange ecosystem, they have saved citizens more than 2000 working years during the previous calendar year and saved the country more than 2% of its GDP annually.

Getting this right for the UK matters, it is important.

Though the initial steps discussed here are only part of the story, if adopted they will set a clear path for improving data driven decision making, delivering cross-cutting innovative digital services, and enabling new opportunities for developing a public service that is proactive rather than reactive.

All of these will further the UK’s goal of developing a more effective and efficient public sector that can better navigate today’s increasingly complex and digital world.

Dr Keegan McBride is a departmental research lecturer in AI, government and police at the Oxford Internet Institute.

Nathan Davies is an MSc student focusing on research on the state in an age of digital era government.

This article was originally published published on the OII website.


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