The UK public service is in the midst of a process of radical change, with data and technology at the centre as key drivers and enablers.

The current direction for digital services was put in place following a 2010 report to the Cabinet Secretary from UK Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox entitled 'Revolution, not Evolution'. This stated that the approach to technology in government was out of date and inefficient and called for a transformation in approach, rather than incremental improvements.

Over three days, I met with people from a number of public sector agencies with lead roles in data innovation to find out what progress has been made and what's happening next:

  • Cabinet Office
  • Government Digital Service (GDS)
  • UK Statistical Authority and Office of National Statistics
  • Government Office of Science
  • The National Archives ? Office of Information Policy.

I'll cover my findings in my next couple of blogs, starting with some insights about the GDS and Cabinet Office.

A new ‘startup’ style agency named the Government Digital Service was created within the Cabinet Office following the Lane Fox report. It's headed by Mike Bracken from the Guardian, who was recently named ‘Chief Data Officer’ for the UK. Like many leaders of UK government departments, the people hired for the GDS are fresh thinkers who've often joined government from leading private sector firms (‘outsider-insiders’ in my MIT course terms).

GDS has consolidated 1000 websites to a single government website, got rid of outsourced locked-in contracts with major vendors, introduced new gear, moved government platforms to an open source and agile approach, and worked to even the playing field so that small tech companies could compete against the large firms.

I sat in on a 'Registers Hack day' run by Paul Downey from GDS, which brought together developers from a number of agencies to develop registers and apps. Paul told me that GDS has started to focus on principles for data collection, management, sharing and use. While there are many data-sharing arrangements in the UK government under various legislations, there are no set standards or API for sharing between agencies and there are few common canonical registers.

Hackday

Hack day in action

Hackday

Hack day in action

Paul told me that the GDS vision is for government to create the best services in the country. They see this as like ‘The Big Stink’ of the 1850s, when there was a proposal to move Parliament out of London because of the smell of raw sewage in the streets. Civil engineer Joseph Bazelgette created sewers and saved London. Mike Bracken wants the GDS to do the same: technology in British government stinks. They need to fix it to save government.

New Chief Data Officer and Chief Digital Officer roles are being created in UK government agencies, as they are in private sector organisations. While the CIO or CTO role is to buy kit and create software, the digital team creates the future. A CDO is an interim, transformation role ? eventually everything will be digital.

The central part of Cabinet Office also has a role to play in innovation and open data. I spoke to Paul Maltby, the lead for this area. Paul's focus is on leading change in the policy community. Like GDS, he runs a renegade set of teams that enable innovative and agile policy making often using design thinking. They promote open policy making drawing in outside voices.

The Cabinet Office also takes a lead in setting guidance on open data, including guidance on ethical principles to apply when considering data use, given the British public's high concerns about privacy.

To enable innovation, the Cabinet Office has focused on the people as well as the process. They are identifying a network of innovators across agencies ? with a mix of people in policy, operational and leadership roles.

Paul Maltby

Paul Maltby