Public Services > Central Government

Stakeholders consider UK Digital Strategy’s public service implications

Neil Merrett Published 01 March 2017

Secretary of state pledges to support opportunities for fintech and AI, while questions are raised over local government commitments in long awaited government strategy

Public services will not be fit for purpose without fully embracing digital technology initiatives, creating potentially enormous consequences for the UK, Karen Bradley, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport has argued during the launch of the government’s Digital Strategy.

In a launch speech with liberal references to “an economy that works for everyone”, the minister noted that the strategy would also seek to support emerging technologies and boost existing UK expertise in robotics, clean technology, biotechnology and fintech.

“The UK is the global capital for financial technology, which generated £6.6bn of revenue in 2015. So I can announce that we will launch a new competition to harness the power of fintech for people who struggle to manage their money.”

Whether this may have applications for public services was not specified by Bradley, although the Association of British Insurers (ABI) late last year announced six providers had been chosen to develop components for a Pensions Dashboard as part of work commissioned by HM Treasury.

Bradley pointed to existing government commitments such as the £1.9bn set aside  to underpin a five year National Cyber Security Strategy in order to better mitigate enhanced risks to systems from expanded connectivity and individuals using technology. She also pledged commitments to 4G and superfast broadband coverage, supported through the Universal Service Obligation intended to give every business and individual the right to request an affordable high-speed broadband connection.

Having this week unveiled the long awaited strategy, which sets out funding and aims to support training, infrastructure development and public service innovation, politicians, industry and local government have been giving their responses to the plans.

While some have praised the scope of the document, specifically around emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and the potential for entirely new forms of industry, others have questioned its engagement with local authorities to help them with more standardised online functionality, as well as connectivity commitments.

Labour MP Louise Haigh, shadow minister for the digital economy, questioned why there had been over a year’s delay to release the strategy, which she argued represented recycled announcements and limited details on the means of meeting key aims to cement the UKs place as a leading digital economy.

"Millions are being left in the digital slow lane yet rather than commit to universal superfast which will benefit millions the government have, for the fourth time, chosen to reannounce a fund, first trailed sixteen months ago, which will mean that by 2020 only 7% of homes and businesses will receive full fibre – a coverage level Latvia and Lithuania reached in 2012,” she said.

"Our major cities, towns, swathes of our rural communities and thousands of small businesses are being left behind and the government’s failure to use this strategy to commit to universal superfast broadband represents a missed opportunity. The government are uniting rural farmers, urban coffee shops, and business park start-ups in a coalition against them.”

Local government views

Responding to the strategy’s publication, Camden Council’s cabinet member for finance, technology and growth Theo Blackwell took to social media to provide his early feedback on the plans, praising mentions of locally run services for care early in the document. The interoperability of health and social care services is among key issues currently facing local authorities and the NHS as they seek to undertake service transformation plans based on improved efficiency and technology adoption.

Blackwell also noted that the Whitehall focus of the strategy was to be expected based on central government challenge in linking up departments. As such, he questioned whether a separate strategy for local authorities may be needed to take a more targeted approach to planning.

The councillor also raised concerns about what he claimed were very limited details on smart cities and devolved data and digital policy outside of Whitehall. He also criticised a lack of a replacement model for funding the Local Digital Coalition body designed to support collaboration projects.  Blackwell said the coalition was presently being funded by Camden since cuts to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

The Digital Strategy, building on the Government Transformation Strategy released earlier this year, also noted the importance of government-built common platforms such as the GOV.UK Verify identity assurance solution that it hoped can expand usage numbers by 2,400% by 2020 to allow access to public services.

Considering these commitments and a pledge to expand local government adoption and use of Verify, Blackwell asked if the Government Digital Service (GDS) might provide further assistance for pilot projects to test the platform to help alleviate pressures on authorities.

LocalGov Digital vice-chair Phil Rumens in response argued for an extended focus that favoured two other common platforms under development by GDS in the form of GOV.UK Pay and GOV.UK Notify. He argued the platforms would better meet authority needs in the short-term over identity.

Also responding to Blackwell, Essex Councillor Stephen Canning shared his view of the need for more collaborative leadership from local government organisations and clear advocacy for digital leadership and work.

Industry view

The wider technology industry has also responded to the strategy, with Digital Catapult chief executive Dr Jeremy Silver welcoming the publication, and urging a broader collaboration from stakeholders, the Civil Service and citizens to ensure the full potential of the plan could be met.

“[The strategy] is a great statement of digital opportunity for all. As a nation we are taking strides in artificial intelligence, 5G, the Internet of Things and Immersive technologies. It is fantastic to see the government’s ongoing commitment today to delivering value from these technologies,“ he said.

“It is these future networks and emerging technologies which will help us build world leading digital sectors and act as economic drivers across many sectors of the whole economy.“

Elwyn Jones, vice president of central government and justice operations for supplier CGI, said that the broad aims of the “post-Brexit“ digital strategy would require proof and steadfast examples of their possible benefits going forward to ensure such core aims were realised.

“As we saw with the recent Government Digital Transformation Strategy, there is much work to be done to enhance digital services and skills within the UK and this isn’t going to happen overnight," he said.

"To achieve this, there needs to be a significant investment around how digital transformation programmes are developed and implemented in schools, universities and businesses. We also need to see greater investment in start-ups with partnerships forming to enable greater digital success. These responsibilities can be supported by technology companies, who are well placed to help educate and help build a stronger digital Britain.”

Related articles:

NCSC opens London HQ as it looks to next phase of cyber efforts

Experian among fintech companies developing Pensions Dashboard

Chancellor sets out £1.9bn cyber security strategy update

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