With the coronavirus crisis accelerating the digital transformation of public service delivery and government use of data, the government must learn quickly from what has, and has not, worked if it is to effectively serve citizens during and beyond the pandemic.
This report also warns that the opportunities offered by better use of data and technology could be squandered unless the government is more open about how it uses and shares people’s data.
Decades of investment in expertise, digital tools and practices across government have helped civil servants to create new services and adapt existing ones. In addition, clear political direction, and partnerships with external suppliers, allowed HMRC to quickly build three new services to support furloughed workers and the self-employed, and also helped the DWP to ensure Universal Credit could cope with unprecedented demand. The civil service also adapted rapidly to remote working.
However, failures in the roll-out of the government’s contact tracing app, and the use of its A-level algorithm, show how excessive enthusiasm for new technology can cause more problems than it solves if ministers don’t think through how new systems will operate. The pandemic has also confirmed that Verify, the government’s favoured system to verify citizens’ identities, is not the long-term solution to digital identity in government.
To ensure it builds on the successes and learns from the failures of the first phase of the pandemic, the report recommends that the government:
- Clarify the roles and responsibilities of the chief digital officer, chief data officer and new chief executive of the Government Digital Service – all positions it is currently recruiting or about to recruit
- Ensure data expertise and capability is shared across government and not in isolated pockets such as the Downing Street data science unit
- Clarify its plans for digital identity
- Be more open about use of citizens’ data and engage the public on plans for sharing data
- Understand where technology can support its aims, rather than starting with the technology itself