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GDS chief outlines five pillars for future work

20/09/19

Mark Say Managing Editor

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is to focus on five pillars – data, digital identity, security, legacy IT and user experience – as the basis for its work over the next decade.

Alsion Pritchard on stage

Interim director general Alison Pritchard outlined the approach at the Cabinet Office Sprint 19 event, saying this would be the basis of its work in fulfilling the elements of its vision for digital services by 2030.

She also pointed to three overlapping elements to the way GDS is looking at its work: covering the short term until the Government Spending Review expected next year; longer term work until 2030; and the need to accelerate its progress in key areas.

“Government in 2030 will be joined up, trusted and responsive to user needs,” Pritchard said. “This is the closest I have seen for quite a while to articulating the end goal for what we are trying to achieve.

“Kevin Cunnington started this journey on our vision when he was DG, and we’re a long enough time away to reflect on the time to get there but not so far away that it doesn’t require pace.

“The concept of being joined up, trusted and responsive to user needs is not surprising nor complex in its own right, but it does underpin the real challenges there will be to get there by 2030.”

GDS is describing the five pillars in terms of goals for that year, with the one for security being to have robust standards, systems and capabilities to protect users. This will involve widespread use of the concept of ‘secure by default’, in which the security of services is built into design and technical architecture from scratch.

Legacy aim

The aim for the legacy pillar is that by 2030 it will no longer be a barrier to transformation and the adoption of emerging technology. Pritchard said the existing “sizeable legacy debt” in government IT poses challenges related to security, the commercial factors at work and the ability to achieve transformation.

“We have the advantage of having some big systems that have delivered incredible progress over the years, and we’re now trying to iterate further development alongside the legacy debt,” she said.

“So in the Spending Review we will look for investment to tackle the debt as it exists. There are programmes under way in a number of departments, and at the very least we have to stop the debt getting worse.

“You will see quite a bit of work in trying to measure that debt and seeing where progress can be made.”

Another aim is to have ubiquitous digital identity across government services. GDS is continuing to work in the sector, emphasising the 5 million sign-ups to the GOV.UK Verify platform and taking part in the work with the Department of Digital, Culture, Medi and Sport on the next steps for digital identities.

Robust data

The aim for data is to have a robust data infrastructure to drive economic and social outcomes. Pritchard suggested this could involve the increased use of APIs and sharing of attributes.

“Ultimately this is about the bringing together of operating models,” she said. “If you are running an operating model for a service and require a data flow from somewhere else, trying to find a way to disrupt and engage operating models in more effective ways is part of the challenge in this data agenda.”

The user experience pillar involves working towards personalised public services based on user needs. She said plenty of work has already been done in this field and provided a good baseline for progress.

Pritchard received support from Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Dowden, who in a speech to the conference highlighted the five pillars as central to overcoming the existing blocks on transformation.

He also pointed to priorities in focusing on how people use the GOV.UK website and the pulling together of anonymised data.

Seamless journey

“Over the next year we want to bring together different parts of government involved in delivering services, incorporating digital and policy teams across government to bring services, data and information into one seamless user journey,” he said.

“It’s starting with key life events such as having a baby or setting up a business, or what do when a loved one has passed away. It enables government to deliver smarter public services by getting things right from the start.

“Doing this requires us to bring together data that already exists into one place so that trends can properly analysed to improve things for users. But until now analytics for GOV.UK has been fragmented which has made this impossible.

“So we are now fixing this siloed data once and for all to get better insights into how people are interacting with government online. It is to help us achieve that transformation.”

Brexit factor

He added that the UK’s approaching exit from the EU has been a catalyst for stepping up relevant work that has been in the pipeline for some time, partly because GDS anticipates a surge in people using GOV.UK for information on how it affects their personal or business circumstances and what they may need to do.

The announcements came shortly after the Government revealed in a job advertisement that it is searching for a new chief digital data officer to take the lead role in the field.

Dowden said the appointment, at second permanent secretary level, will be a signal of the importance attached to the work, and will contribute to equipping departments with the skills needed to take it forward.

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