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The minister for boosting government digital


Mark Say Managing Editor

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Heather Wheeler
Image source: Richard Townshend, CC BY 3.0

Four months in the relevant ministerial post and Heather Wheeler MP launches the new UK Government strategy for digital and data.

The Cabinet Office minister with the digital government brief does not seem the obvious choice, acknowledging that she has no background in technology and comes from a generation before digital natives, but makes a down-to-earth argument for the importance of the three-year strategy – which was published yesterday – in the future of government.

Part of this is in acknowledging the limits of her tech savviness and saying a big part of the effort is in making things easier for people like herself – which accounts for a large section of the public.

“I’m one up from a Luddite and will struggle to work out where the bit at the back of the computer is that does the bit at the front of the computer, and I really like using a mouse, not the square thing in the middle with your finger moving it around.

“So talk about transforming the Civil Service, this has been about transforming Minister Wheeler. It’s been an absolute joy …. And I’m grasping this enthusiastically, because if I can do it, anyone can do it. And I’m going to do one of the master classes for civil servants over the summer to learn more.”

Covid-19 effect

A point that often emerges from overarching strategies is that much of them covers familiar ground. Asked what is different about this one, Wheeler says a major factor has been the experience of Covid-19 on public sector digital.

“We had to get stuff done incredibly quickly, and that was almost a pilot for what we now know we can do, and what we have to do.”

She combines this with the strategy’s emphasis on increasing senior civil servants’ digital know-how.

“The world out there is changing. It’s so digitally based that we need to make sure our top leaders have the skills they really should have. That’s why as well as recognising things have to change, recognising the Civil Service can do a great job in getting these changes through, as they have proved they can over the past two years, it’s really important our senior civil servants have the training.”

Although she refers to the sharp growth in the number of civil servants since the start of the pandemic, she insists the strategy is not directly related to talk among ministers about cutting the Civil Service headcount but a “happy coincidence”.

She relates this to the performance of the Passport Office, saying that despite recent reports of long delays it is handling most applications quickly using AI for online applications.

Auditor's lessons

The policy official who accompanies her relates the general point to a National Audit Office report from last year that criticised government’s record on digital change and has formed the basis for the design principles of the strategy. It identified needs to get business sponsorship in the Civil Service, for specific commitments that are achievable and to back them with the right levers and accountability mechanisms.

She highlights elements of the strategy such as sponsorship of the work through a new Digital and Data Board of permanent secretaries, the commitment that 50 of the 75 top services will meet a definition of ‘great’, that there has been deep analysis to ensure ambitions are achievable, and accountability mechanisms including spend controls are being put in place.

It raises a question around the definition of ‘great’ services, to which there are two elements around efficiency and usability. The answer offered is that the strategy is drawing on industry best practice for the development of data based measures of performance such as the take-up of digital channels and customer satisfaction.

The Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) has the lead role, along with working with departments’ digital and delivery teams to develop consistent baselines for the quality of services, backed up by quarterly business reviews to track progress and six-monthly publications of progress reports

“That will be very important,” Wheeler says. “As well as the heads of service committee we have the ministers for all the departments sitting on the board for the first time, and there is great enthusiasm for the other ministers to make this happen.”

She emphasises the role of ministers in placing pressure on departments that are not meeting the requirements, and that the CDDO will provide support in buying the right kit to ensure they can talk to each other effectively on projects.

Attention on One Login

One of the features on which the strategy will be tested is the development of the One Login service as a sign-in mechanism for central government services. It is bound to attract a lot of attention given the failure of its predecessor, GOV.UK Verify, to attract widespread take-up by departments or the public.

The strategy says that all departments should confirm their own adoption strategies and roadmaps by April 2023 and begin onboarding services by 2025. Wheeler attributes Verify’s failure to take off to recurrent problems for users in registering and logging in, but emphasises the positive for One Login by saying some service teams are eager to begin using it.

“We’ve got five pilots (beginning in September) we’ve chosen from departments that have come to us to have a got at it first, and it’s a real range. One is from the Veterans’ Service, one is from the DVSA (Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency) where you sign in as a transport driver, another from the Land Registry to enter mortgage details for a property.

“That will be us fixing it, making it available, and the public using it. We’re going with these five pilots first. One of things we’ve learnt is not to do ‘big bang’ but try to make sure it works first, and that will get huge public buy-in.”

Asked if there is going to be a public communications campaign to make people aware of the service, she says it has not really come into the planning so far but it is a good point to raise, and that there could be scope to develop a programme.

Her presentation at the launch event for the strategy highlighted One Login as a major element, saying that the accompanying app should become available for the first users to prove their identity later this year.

Tools, data and sustainability

The presentation also flagged up the continuing role of the Government Digital Service in developing new tools and functions to support transformation in departments, efforts to further improve the use of data and to help organisations work towards sustainability in their use of technology.

Wheeler emphasised that the strategy had been developed with input from people with specialist skills and high level officials across government, and claimed it will help to drive further transformation.

“While the potential and appetite for digital transformation in government is enormous, the challenges are just as large,” she said. “We must take a strategic, whole system approach to overcome these.

“Our new strategy will improve the way government operates to create a more efficient and effective government. This strategy is a milestone. We have developed a coherent, joined up roadmap for digital transformation that has been delivered collaboratively across government.”

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