“If you check my Wikipedia page, and I don’t advise you do, you’ll see that this isn’t necessarily my area of expertise,” Simon Hart, MP and the government’s newly appointed Minister for Implementation told the audience of techUK’s fifth annual public services conference yesterday.

“I’m just an average end user from West Wales,” says Hart. “Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

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@funkyphotographers

As opening gambits go, it was a bold one from the man who now holds one of the most senior technology roles in the country, having been appointed at the end of July, after Boris Johnson took over as Prime Minister. 

“I was told before I came on stage that I definitely have to stick to the script on this next part,” he jokes, before addressing the elephant in the room: “Brexit has made the challenge a bit more pressing.”

The wide-ranging cabinet role provides support to the Minister for the Cabinet Office and oversees the cross-government delivery and implementation of everything from commercial controls and civil and HR services to cyber resilience, government digital services and government property. 

In June 2019, Hart’s predecessor, Oliver Dowd, launched the Innovation Implementation strategy, which outlined how government departments plan to embrace emerging technologies. While an emphasis on new digital initiatives within government is something that should be welcomed, the document that accompanied the policy announcement appeared to be heavy on buzzwords but somewhat light on detail.  

Hart is now the minister tasked with spearheading the initiative, starting with his first public outing in the role this week. Much like the flagship strategy that comes with his new job, Hart seems to be very good at saying the right things but is less forthcoming when it comes to the details. 

He seems enthusiastic about the task ahead but his speech is littered with a number of comments which imply that this is a job for him that, much like many of today’s digital roles, will require some learning on the job. Hart started his career as a chartered surveyor, before becoming the chief executive of the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance.

“Innovation is top of our list of priorities,” Hart insists, before adding, with a laugh,“although you’re probably more aware of some of the innovations going on in the private and public sectors than I am at the moment.”

As part of the Innovation Implementation strategy, the UK government has self-imposed a number of deadlines on its digital public services to ensure they meet the accessibility needs of the citizens they have been designed to help.

Hart admits that this is a project that is “largely affordable” and something that “should have been done already.”

The UK government has a long history of trying to improve the digital skills of its citizens, to varying degrees of success. The Government Digital Service (GDS), which was launched back in 2011, has experienced its own tumultuous history while the UK Digital Strategy, which was launched four-Ministers-ago in 2017, has yet to really get off the ground due to Brexit pre-occupations. 

Hart also spoke about avoiding “innovation for innovation’s sake”, rather focusing on solving the real-world problems that people in the UK face on a daily basis.

Departmental innovation

The various government departments that were represented at the event also all sung from the same hymn sheet, although they had the opportunity to be franker about the challenges that come from trying to innovate within the HMRC, NHS, DWP and the Home Office.

As is the case with most technology conferences, data is both a talking point and a sticking point among many of the speakers. Large-scale cultural shifts have seen the way citizens interact with their own data, and the trust they put in others to have access to it, change over time. 

Rachel Dunscombe from NHS Digital says that the healthcare service regularly sees patients actively take their own healthcare data and challenge doctors to meet them halfway in terms of gaining insights into it.

For other departments, it’s less straightforward to use data in a meaningful way. “Good data management comes down to trust,” says Joanna Davinson, CDIO at the Home Office, noting that her department perhaps struggles more than most with getting citizens on side.

Antony Collard, head of architecture and innovation at HMRC also expressed his frustrations about the lack of inter-departmental data sharing from his perspective as a citizen, having recently had to deal with several different government agencies after suffering a family bereavement.

“There needs to be a culture change,” Collard said. “The private and public sector need to start working together to make life easier for the user.”

However, talk around departmental silos, legacy systems and the DWP still deploying 23 different postcode checkers, proves that although there’s a definite want to innovate, the realities of doing so may not be so straightforward. The fact that HMRC is only now embarking on a two-year cloud migration project illustrates that all this talk of innovation, much like charity, needs to start at home.

Government blockchain initiatives

One technology that got a good airing at yesterday’s event was blockchain. The distributed ledger technology was mentioned by the chief digital officers of both the Home Office and the DWP as something they were excited by.

When asked about what emerging technologies the Home Office is looking at, the department’s chief digital, data and technology officer, Joanna Davinson, said: “Everyone is very excited about blockchain at the moment,” before adding wryly that “it’s going to solve all our border problems.”

According to Simon McKinnon, chief digital officer at the DWP, his department has already started to outline some potential use cases for the distributed ledger technology. 

“We've looked at it in terms of how we make payments and if it would enable a better way of transferring payments into the banking system,” McKinnon told Techworld.

“We've also looked at it in terms of whether there’s a way of better managing the provenance of data as it transfers between government departments, so that we can share data with a great deal more confidence. That way we’ll know that the data is current and relevant.”

What next?

Whether it’s through the introduction of cutting-edge technology or simply by streamlining some of the services on offer, without the right people and skills in place, any attempts to innovate won’t get off the ground.

From the NHS embedding digital skills in today’s nursing qualifications, to a greater emphasis being placed on in-work training, government departments are capitalising on the talent they have in order to help improve the work they’re doing.

“Technology doesn’t innovate, people do. But, the current culture of organisations prohibits the learning of new skills,” managing director of talent and organisation at Accenture, Eimear Meredith Jones said. “You need to allow people to fail in order to help them ultimately succeed.”