The UK digital strategy: big ambitions, small details

Source: PSE Apr/May 17

On 1 March the government finally published its much-anticipated UK Digital Strategy. Its aim is to “create a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone”. That’s ambitious stuff. Eddie Copeland, director of government innovation at Nesta, asks what we should make of its provisions for the public sector.

On digital government, there are some noticeable and pleasing changes in language in the strategy that address some of the key critiques made of the Government Digital Service (GDS). 

In its ambition to deliver Government as a Platform, the strategy states an aim to use “commodity hardware or cloud-based software instead of building something that is needlessly government-specific”. That’s good news. 

While there are some tools that may have to be developed in-house, using the best off-the-shelf products is vital if government is to benefit (as every other sector does) from the best and most cost-effective innovations the market can provide. Let’s not forget that GDS was founded on a realisation that the old world of procuring huge, custom IT systems provided by large IT firms was not always delivering the value promised. Little will be gained by replacing bespoke IT developed by external suppliers with bespoke IT developed in-house. 

The strategy also broadens the definition of users of digital services, noting that “some users will interact with government through third-party services that use government APIs”. Again, that’s welcome. Ensuring that third parties can plug into government systems is a wholly sensible way to better serve citizens, and also means new services can be designed that cater to more specific needs, without waiting for government to create them. 

And then there’s the focus on developing the skills of Civil Service staff, “making sure digital experts understand government” and that “civil servants of other professions understand digital”. Amen to that. Digital tools will only make a difference when they are accompanied by a workforce with the talents to use them. 

On the subject of data, however, the picture looks more mixed. 

The strategy commits to opening up many more datasets – both from government and business – over the coming years, all of which is welcome. But it fails to say anything about how government plans to help innovators outside of government turn ‘open data’ into genuinely useful products and services. The only case study given is, yet again, CityMapper. Yes, it’s a genuine success story, but one notable for its rarity. If we really want to be able to list dozens more examples like it in the coming years, it’s not enough merely to publish open data. Government must invest in providing context and support, and offer to collaborate with others on its datasets. 

The single best way to improve the quality of open data is for government to use its own – to inform better decisions, to improve services and to target its resources more effectively. By doing so, the quality, frequency and scale of what it can realise publicly will naturally increase. It’s therefore positive that the strategy commits to using data “to its maximum potential within government to provide more efficient and responsive public services”. To achieve this, it highlights a need to strengthen data infrastructure, referring to “the assets, technology, processes, and organisations that not only create data, but open it up and allow it to be shared”. These are nice words. It would have been even better to see some detail on how the vision is to be achieved.

There are also some missing pieces. If government really wants to make data central to delivering better services, it must acknowledge that around 700 of these are delivered by local authorities. Other than some provisions in the Digital Economy Bill to make accessing and sharing data easier, there’s no mention of how councils will be supported in making better use of data. With the sector facing a £12.4bn funding shortfall by 2020, it’s not sufficient merely to publish guidance. Central government needs to support councils in developing new ways of using data that give them a real chance of reforming services. 

Two approaches might help. First, at Nesta, we’ve be working with a variety of UK regions to pilot Offices of Data Analytics – small teams capable of joining up, analysing and acting upon data at a city scale. Early signs are that the approach works, but scaling it will require long-term funding. Second – and given the high demand for skilled data analysts – government could train up and pay for a pool of data scientists who could be seconded to local authorities for six months at a time, designing new processes and upskilling local staff. 

Despite these omissions, it’s good that this strategy has finally seen the light of day, and that the government continues to think seriously about the role of digital and data. Its intentions are headed in the right direction. But now, all efforts must be focused on moving from broad aspirations to specific and concrete actions.




There are no comments. Why not be the first?

Add your comment


public sector executive tv

more videos >

latest news

View all News


Building a more diverse society

05/03/2018Building a more diverse society

Karl Wilding, policy director at the National Council for Voluntary Organis... more >
Developing our future leaders

05/03/2018Developing our future leaders

Kerry Bishop, apprenticeship and qualification development manager at the L... more >

editor's comment

25/10/2017Take a moment to celebrate

Devolution, restructuring and widespread service reform: from a journalist’s perspective, it’s never been a more exciting time to report on the public sector. That’s why I could not be more thrilled to be taking over the reins at PSE at this key juncture. There could not be a feature that more perfectly encapsulates this feeling of imminent change than the article James Palmer, mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, has penned for us on p28. In it, he highlights... read more >

last word

The importance of openness after Grenfell

The importance of openness after Grenfell

Following the recent Grenfell Tower tragedy, Lord Porter, chairman of the LGA, argues that if the public are going to have faith in the safety testing process then everything must be out in the open more > more last word articles >


Keeping London safe

05/03/2018Keeping London safe

Theo Blackwell, London’s first-ever chief digital officer (CDO), spea... more >

the raven's daily blog

Apprenticeship levy – five myths busted

05/03/2018Apprenticeship levy – five myths busted

On the first day of National Apprenticeship Week 2018 (NAW 2018), the director of the National Apprenticeship Service, Sue Husband, challenges some of the key myths around the... more >
read more blog posts from 'the raven' >

public sector events

events calendar


March 2018

mon tue wed thu fri sat sun
26 27 28 1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30 31 1
2 3 4 5 6 7 8

featured articles

View all News