By Colin Marrs

01 Oct 2018

Colin Marrs reports on a Civil Service Live round table discussion exploring how to spread innovation across government

In May, the government launched a new GovTech Catalyst team to oversee a new £20m fund to help tech firms deliver innovative fixes to public sector challenges. Around 15 projects are set to benefit from funding and support, but the challenge in reaching the goal of a fully-digitised government go much deeper. A recent roundtable discussion, supported by global digital transformation specialists Cognizant, gathered experts to discuss how innovation can be brought to the heart of government.

Changing hundreds of years of analogue culture within government to embrace the potential of digital technology is not easy. Many policy makers still lack the full appreciation of what opportunities are available to them at the earliest stages of policy development, according to Andrea Siodmok, deputy director and head of the Cabinet Office policy lab. “One head of policy described it as being a bit like falling asleep in a library and waking up in a cocktail bar – this new world digital that was totally alien,” she said.

Educating policy professionals about digital technology is crucial to overcoming the problem, according to Eloise Taysom, product manager of data and artificial intelligence at the Government Digital Service. “We have been going out and talking about the opportunities and I have had some really good feedback from people who aren’t necessarily exposed to this in their day-to-day jobs including deputy directors and directors,” she said. “A lot of the feedback is along the lines of: ‘You helped me understand something that I’ve heard about I didn’t have any context on how it actually works and how it can be applied in different situations’.”

But education and training is only part of the picture. Sharing real-life cases where technology has successfully helped policy formulation can also be useful, according to Amanda Svensson, chief data scientist at the Cabinet Office. “One of the main pillars,” she said, “is finding good examples to help departments that might have fewer resources to also increase their awareness and raise the possibilities of what they can achieve.”

Examples are not hard to come by, with many areas of government making great strides in simplifying formerly disorganised and disparate processes through the use of digital technology. One example discussed by the group was an ongoing Land Registry effort to centralise the process of local land charge searches which are currently run by local authorities.

Graham Farrant, chief executive of the Land Registry, outlined the scale of the challenge: “Their services are often run totally differently. Some are paper based, some are geospatial, and some are digital with geospatial. The challenge is around about how we share the information about what we are all trying to do and learning from that.”

Within the UK public service, more help will soon be available, according to Graham Walker, deputy director of innovation at GDS. The team has just launched an “innovation map” based on a survey of how different parts of government are using technology to assist in policy-making. “That will help to show who is using what tech around government and what they're using it for, with lists of all the various labs and other initiatives that are set up, just so that we all know what’s happening.”

But innovation should not just be the preserve of government officials, according to some around the table. In some areas, giving away government data for free can encourage third parties - both companies and individuals - to create uses that civil servants may not have even thought of, the panel heard.

Farrant said: “We used to sell a database of companies that own property and we sold 22 copies of it last year, making £250,000 of income. Out of our total income of £370m that was not much, so we made it free in November. More than 2,500 people have downloaded it since. We used to accept that government data should be made available only if you pay for it. But if you give it away, suddenly people use it for new things.”

This point was supported by Jacquie Taylor, chief executive of web science company Flying Binary. “When I worked in Cabinet Office, we opened up the National Pupil Database and there are now 100,000 users of the data –Whitehall is one of the biggest users,” she said. “Officials wanted to know what the education outcomes of their initiatives were. It is unlocking a whole new economy, which we call the empathy economy because it’s trying to solve social problems.”

Using open data is one thing, but problems remain in other areas of data sharing, according to the panel’s chair, Kevin Cunnington, director general of the GDS. He said: “The UK has been the number one producer of open data for the last two years running, which seems like it might be worth celebrating as a country. I think though, it gets more difficult as you’re sharing data across departments.”

John Keegan, head of infrastructure services at the Department for Work and Pensions, suggested that Blockchain technologies will also eventually provide some assurance that data shared with other departments will be used correctly and consistently. “It is getting that trust so you know where the data’s coming from, you know what the key records are and what the source of truth is around that,” he said. “You can do some really neat things with blockchain.”

Keeping up to date with the fast-evolving world of technological solutions is not simple. And for the policy maker in government, working out how the new tools on offer can provide solutions to their problems is even harder. However, the panel discussions made it clear that many in government are making huge strides in harnessing the opportunities. And it learnt that proper education and sharing of good practice can make the almost limitless opportunities seem inspiring, rather than daunting.

The session ended with consideration of the opportunities for both small and large businesses to engage with the GovTech Catalyst. Yatin Mahandru, head of UK and Ireland public sector at Cognizant, said: “If there's that kind of ecosystem going; not only would government benefit, SMEs would benefit from larger partners supporting them in scaling up successfully. Government could also benefit if it wanted to share in the success of the IPR.. For government, it is about opening up the ecosystem more to the private sector, large and small enterprises.”

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