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Government was tempted by ‘shiny technology’ contact tracing app


The UK government set unreasonable expectations for its contact tracing app when it should have focused on the operation of its test and trace system, according to the Institute for Government.

In a report, Digital government during the coronavirus crisis, the think-tank says that initial development of the app used in England and Wales suffered from a planned centralised approach to data-gathering. This was eventually abandoned due to opposition from Apple and Google, whose mobile device operating systems needed to work with the app. A decentralised version of the app was finally released in September.

But it adds that it is not clear that any contact-tracing app has been particularly useful unless linked to further intrusive surveillance using the likes of financial transactions and cameras, which are unlikely to be politically acceptable in the UK.

“A long-standing concern about government digital transformation is that leaders can get tempted by shiny technology and ‘tech solutionism’ at the expense of service design and getting the basics of data and digital infrastructure right,” the report says. “This is a concern borne out by all the fanfare about the contact tracing app – an untested and unproven technological solution – at the expense of a functioning wider system of test and trace.”

By contrast, the report praises new digital services set up during the crisis by the Government Digital Service (GDS), HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

GDS replaced its usual service assessment process with a two-hour remotely-held peer review meeting that focused on security, resilience, accessibility and whether the system could be improved after launch, with recommendations made the following day. It also led development of the shielded vulnerable people service, set up in a week allowing 1.2 million people to register for special care needs and prioritised deliveries of food and supplies. GDS worked with NHS Digital and the Information Commissioner’s Office on the necessary data sharing agreements.

HMRC used its in-house technology expertise to build three digital services, covering furloughing of workers, income support for some self-employed people and sick pay rebates, all within five weeks. It developed services in an iterative fashion that the department describes as “agile on steroids” with technologists working long hours to get them live.

The department also set up new methods to apply for the Government Gateway system it uses for identity management, with 650,000 people applying for the self-employed scheme using a driving licence. The report argues that the fact that key departments continue to develop their own identity management services shows that the central Verify identity scheme “is not the solution”.


Image from iStock: AntonioGuillem

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