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Think tank calls for ‘open platform’ in government



Policy Exchange report includes proposals for single digitalisation roadmap, a move for GDS and new mechanisms to encourage govtech start-ups

A leading think tank has urged the Government to develop an ‘open platform’ approach to take advantage of digital technology, creating a new ecosystem of suppliers and taking steps to build public trust over the use of personal data.

It should involve the development of a single roadmap towards digitalising core transactions and launching APIs, and a controversial move for the Government Digital Service (GDS) from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), according to the centre-right Policy Exchange.

It has set out the plans in a new report, The Smart State, which acknowledges the progress made in using digital and says the Government has the right ambition. But it says it still falls well short of the best companies in the private sector and needs to overcome challenges around legacy systems, data security and a top-down system that exacerbates the skills shortage.

The report talks of government needing to operate as an open platform on which it can share data and connect citizens to a wider range of service providers, but says it is still organised strictly by service. This makes it hard for datasets to work together and for new players to break in and invent new ways of working.

True disruption

“If we are to unlock the potential for true disruption and new ideas, we need to ensure that sustainable business models exist for start-ups to earn a return and scale up their innovation,” it says. “Part of being a true platform is ensuring the health of the wider supplier ecosystem.”

It points to using outcomes based mechanisms like payment by results or social impact bonds to help suppliers find a sustainable business model. While it has been hard to build an evidence base for this in the past, the emergence of big data is making this possible.

The report suggests a number of steps for the Government to take, including the creation of a Digital Government Account for people to control the way their data is used by public authorities.

It advocates the move of GDS to DCMS as part of the creation of a Department for Digital and Culture that would focus on transformation across public and private sectors. Over time the department should take full leadership of projects it currently shared with the Department of Business, Enterprise, Innovation and Skills (BEIS).

Another step would be for the Government’s chief data officer to work with GDS on a single, open roadmap of progress for digitalising core transactions and launching open APIs, which would allow devolved administrations and third parties to interact better with central government. This should come with using more common standards in data, and a recognition that central government should not aim to hold all the data itself.

Plans, payments and privacy

Other proposals include:

  • Each department including an account of its progress in digital transformation within annual updates on their single departmental plans.
  • A trial of a new payments by results mechanism, with social impact bonds in health, education and welfare, to encourage early adopters to use new services.
  • A five-year innovation lab centred on AI and machine learning.
  • GDS, the Centre for Data Ethics and the Information Commissioner’s Office should work on a set of ‘privacy by default’ principles in the use of data by public authorities.

“Like today’s leading companies, government should be structured as a platform and centred around the needs of the individual, rather than the legacy structures of government departments,” the Policy Exchange said in publishing the report.

“Whilst the UK is already a world leader in open data, the government needs to overcome the challenges of legacy systems, maintaining user trust on data security and skills shortages to realise the full potential of digital government.

“As the private sector works to respond to the EU’s GDPR regulations and recent personal data scandals, the Government should be setting an example of what true user control and ‘privacy by design’ looks like.”

By Clay Gilliland, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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