Interview part 2: Liam Maxwell talks about the possibilities of sharing digital tools with other governments, and brings the potential of personal data stores back into the spotlight
The idea of sharing a resource is now a big part of the thinking around government IT. We talk about central government agencies, local authorities, police forces and NHS bodies using shared platform and components – but the Government’s chief technology adviser Liam Maxwell thinks there could be the potential for an international element.
One of the points to emerge from his conversation with UKAuthority last week was that there might be scope for the UK to share some of what it develops with other nations; and to make use of what other public sector digital leaders achieve.
“Government is a weird business to be in because you don’t compete,” he says. “We don’t compete with the Swedish government to give out driving licences but we do the same thing. So why can’t we share what we use for that?”
It prompts the question of can we share government cloud services or software on an international stage?
“I think definitely with the use of commodity components. As you move towards platform as a service, where you have a common abstracted platform for cloud services, data registers and a series of open source components from which you can build services that work on your platforms – such as a booking function, appointment making or administrative function – there is scope for all of these things.
“If you use a common group of them it can lead to tremendous efficiencies in our government, and in other governments.
“We’ve seen Estonia do this with Finland recently. It’s why we moved into D5 where we can share education programmes and code. That’s a really positive move. I wonder whether we could end up with an international government service on the cloud? That’s entirely possible.”
He says the possibility could be strongest for a payment tool, pointing to the development of GOV.UK Pay, and that the idea of a federated identity system – taking form here as GOV.UK Verify – could be picked up by others.
It prompts an obvious question for the current political climate: will the fallout from Brexit make this more difficult? He sees the technology sector as being strong enough to prevent this being an issue.
“A really strong point about the digital economy and anything we’re doing in government is that a strong Europe is really good news. A strong digital economy in Europe is good news. There is a very strong international network of people raising money for tech, and will go to different countries, and people in the UK will invest in different countries.
“That’s great, because it’s a diverse investment market driving change.”
This reflects the fact that he spends plenty of time overseas in the job, not just in keeping up with progress in the tech industry, but sharing experiences with other governments in his role of building a coherent approach towards the digital economy. Since moving on from his role as the Government’s chief technology officer 10 months ago his brief has extended further, but he emphasises the importance of government tech within the broader picture.
Of course, an issue that is going to have a strong influence, especially for public services, is data sharing. Maxwell entered government at a time when there had been a backlash against public authorities sharing data without – at least from the protestors’ point of view – sufficient safeguards to protect privacy.
Sentiment in the public sector is now moving back towards a more routine exchange of data – prompted by the financial constraints and need for a lot more cross-agency working – it could be enshrined in the Digital Economy Bill currently going through Parliament. This has prompted a new round of criticisms, but Maxwell echoes the view of Civil Service chief John Manzoni in saying it will provide the right balance.
“One of the things evident in the bill is having a reasonable ability to share data and for people to know it has been shared,” he says, adding that when Government works on legislation in provides the forum for thinking through the implications, and he believes it is now getting to a sustainable position.
“People made contributions, like Jeni Tennison at ODI, which were strong and sensible that we’ve taken onboard. If you look at it from the inside you can think we’ve covered the concerns, but we may not have explained it well enough.”
He adds this should move things in the right direction not just for public services, but the digital economy as a whole.
“If you try to put things into legislation it is difficult, but I’m really heartened by the feedback and really clear, positive advice that was given. We are in a good shape to build a data rich economy where people’s data is taken seriously.”
His view also involves a sustained confidence in a possibility that was talked up early in the decade but has been out of the spotlight more recently – the use of personal data stores, in which people hold their data and make it available to organisations as they see fit.
“In many ways it was an idea before its time, but I can’t see another model that is as persuasive, and it might be one of those cases where you sit and wait for gravity to take over. People will have a much closer affinity to their data because they realise they can gain an economic benefit from it, and society can gain from them owning their data.
“It may just be too clunky an approach and that something else could be smoother, but having your data in your control is something I can see as being a real opportunity in people realising the value of their digital lives. And it means people can start building much more efficient services.
“Ultimately the aim is to reduce the huge amount of friction we all have in our lives, where we are continually filling in forms with the same information.”
It is one of the issues which leads him to point towards Estonia. He admires the Baltic state for its progress in developing digital services, especially with its ‘Tell us once’ approach for the provision of personal data, but acknowledges that the cultural and political differences with the UK – notably the aversion here to identity cards – prevents us from doing things in exactly the same way.
He also seems happy with the direction of travel on government adoption of open source, one of the causes he championed from the late 2000s. It might not have become the default approach, but he sees it as now being an accepted part of the mix.
“It is a different business model to proprietary software. Both are valid and if you shut your mind to either you’re making a fundamental mistake. Open source is a huge component in the growth of modern, open data tech systems.”
Similarly, he is satisfied with the progress for another his early causes, getting more small companies into the government IT marketplace, saying that 52% of sales going through the frameworks goes to smaller firms. But he is also pleased to see big names such as Microsoft and Amazon Web Services developing their offerings to the public sector. The key factor in it all is creating the right conditions for innovation.
“If you’re government of the internet and using shared resources with open standards that opens up the market for everybody, you are able to be a more efficient government, and there is so much more innovation that can come into play.”