Dynamo convened four senior experts from government and technology business on 21 April for a special webinar to debate the government’s digital response to the COVID pandemic. An engaging, ideas-packed discussion followed.
What lessons can we learn from the pandemic for delivering government technology – and what has it taught us about how we can deliver great services together faster and better in future?
That was the key question as four senior speakers from government and technology business came together online for Dynamo’s ‘Pandemic Lessons for UK Government Technology’ webinar on 21 April.
The economic uncertainty of the pandemic forced millions of people to turn to government support – including through the furlough scheme and support for the self-employed. Digital technology enabled the delivery of that support at speed.
This year’s Lessons from the Storm paper from Opencast offered five insights for UK government technology from the COVID crisis, based on its experiences of working with the government to help deliver digital services during the pandemic.
Opencast’s Tom Lawson said “the moment of crisis created a real need for speed that cut through everything else. It brought together suppliers, government and policymakers, and really got everyone aligned around one outcome”.
Antony Collard, who has built and led HMRC’s digital delivery capability, playing a key role in developing the Chancellor’s COVID support services, said the crisis had “moved forward in six weeks something that would normally take us two to three years”.
“We changed our ways of working and embedded that across our technology stack,” he added. “HMRC is learning lessons from the pandemic, making that part of how we do transformation in the future.”
DWP deputy director Jacqui Leggetter said her department had worked closely with HMRC on innovative financial support to create a better solution than benefits – leading to the furlough scheme. “We looked at the problem we were trying to solve, rather than jumping to what we traditionally knew,” she said. “We had a lot of autonomy to devise innovative solutions.”
‘COVID campaign medal’
Daniel Korski, a former Number 10 policy adviser now running govtech innovation firm PUBLIC, said work on services during the pandemic had been extraordinary. “Just like the military prints medals after a campaign, government digital people should have a COVID campaign medal because of the work that’s been done,” he suggested.
But Daniel said the crisis had also “exposed the limited knowledge of other staff. In other industries, we would have a digital transformation programme to update the understanding or fill skills gaps – but this hasn’t happened across the board.”
Antony said it was important that policy improved during the crisis because of a focus on what citizens needed. “Service design is a new thing in government. Having people in the same room has been important, and we are continuing to upskill people,” he said.
Jacqui agreed that user-centred design was critical. “By looking at the user need as a holistic need, not as a policy need, has helped to shape policy thinking that had previously been entrenched,” she said.
APIs and data sharing
Open APIs and data sharing across government were powerful in helping government to deliver services, Jacqui said, predicting that the next spending review would support initiatives that delivered support across cross-government.
“We need to mandate all APIs in all public contracts that have a data component where exposing the data is in the public interest,” Daniel argued, “giving the government the opportunity to ask for what they want, and for the provider to cost for development.”
Tom said professional service businesses like Opencast needed to “work with government as partners, not trying to do things in our own way or feather our own nest.
“We need the supplier community to provide different experiences and advice. All of the good practices built up pre-pandemic weren’t abandoned – they were just used more quickly,” he said.
Daniel said more should be done to bring innovation into government. “Before the pandemic, there was talk of opening up the market to new players, but many found they were locked out.”
PUBLIC had launched TechForce 19 to encourage more innovative products into government, but “only a tiny amount” were taken forward to scale, he said. “We need a better connection with what is piloted and what is scaled,” he said.
Jacqui said DWP had spent much of the last three years moving away from monolithic suppliers, building in-house capability and supplementing that with commercial partnerships.
Antony said HMRC’s Technology Sourcing Programme would open up HMRC’s supply chain. “For me as a technologist, partnerships show policy makers and thinkers how the world can be different.”
Compared to other countries, Daniel argued that it was “hard to find a country that is as large and as agile” as the UK. He pointed to Denmark and Canada and latterly the US, where the Biden administration was “pumping in money at an extraordinary rate”.
He said a critical challenge for the UK was that “we do not have a unified digital vision. We have complex levels of authority, but we haven’t found out what digital set-up to allow these complex political, legal structures to thrive as we want them to, while delivering a seamless digital experience.”
On digital identity and data sharing, Jacqui said a big obstacle was that data was not held in the same format across government. “We need to think about how to share data that is held in a structured way in a silo with other government departments. That’s why we want to develop our API approach to allow us to share data securely.”
“We should start to see common government data standards,” she argued. “Our API and event-driven architecture is being developed and we are developing a common way of building technology, it will unlock some of the data sharing.”
Antony said HMRC’s making tax digital policy had opened up data to suppliers. “I still think that’s the foothills of what we can do,” he said. “Tax is based on trust in this country. With technologies like blockchain, we will be able to build trust.”
He said platforms like HMRC’s multi-channel digital platform would allow data science tools and techniques to help meet challenges.
Optimism and remaining challenges
Antony said HMRC had recognised things could be done differently and was structuring itself to do that.
Tom said he was optimistic that there was a collective coming together, but that “the amount of legacy” remained an issue to be tackled.
Jacqui said she “could not be prouder” of the staff working in every government digital department. “We had to change our working and bring digital closer to the citizen”. A big challenge for DWP was the number of young people affected by the pandemic losing their jobs and the need to support them through digital services.
“We have discovered the enormous value of science. But people have also understood the importance of digital,” Daniel concluded. “I just hope that as we come out of the crisis, some of the fast-acting commercial decisions that had to be made means there isn’t a backlash that means we go back to complex rules of conduct. We’ve got to stay true.”
Antony Collard – chief technology and design officer, HMRC
Daniel Korski – chief executive and co-founder, PUBLIC
Tom Lawson – chief executive, Opencast Software
Jacqui Leggetter – head of integration (deputy director), Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Cate Kalson, director at Oliver Wyman moderated the session.
This webinar was part of the Catalysing Innovation in North East Clusters project, delivered by the Innovation SuperNetwork and part-funded by ERDF.
You can watch the webinar via the Dynamo YouTube channel
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