HMRC 'regularly has to persuade people not to retire'... and six other things we learnt at PublicTechnology Live

Tech roadblocks for driving theory tests, how government online services can improve and more
PublicTechnologyLive 2023. Photo: Tom Hampson/Visual Eye Creative

By SA Mathieson

06 Mar 2023


Hosted in London earlier this month by CSW’s sister publication, PublicTechnology Live gathered together scores of senior government digital and data professionals. As well exploring their challenges and priorities for the months ahead, speakers also enlightened attendees to some of the more unusual considerations of their work. Here are seven things we learned.

Service teams often need to fix what’s ‘under the lid’

The underlying processes of many government online services need improvement, Megan Lee Devlin, chief executive of the Central Digital and Data Office, told PublicTechnology Live.

During the opening keynote, the CDDO chief said that there are “pockets of excellence” among such services.

“Sometimes entire journeys are great, but more often than not, the front-end is better than what’s under the lid,” she said.

Megan Lee Devlin at PublicTechnologyLive 2023. Photo: Tom Hampson/Visual Eye Creative

CDDO, a Cabinet Office unit responsible for government’s digital, data and technology work, has defined what a good-quality online service should look like and is in the process of benchmarking 75 key government services against this. It chose these based on impact and number of users, and is working to level these up to a good standard by 2025, as part of a strategy published in June 2022.

Some theory test candidates cannot drive… a computer mouse

The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency tries to go the extra mile in helping people to take the driving theory test.

Most people sit the test at a DVSA centre using a desktop computer, but some young people do not know how to use them.

“The amount of times in our centres we have to explain what a mouse is,” Alex Fiddes, head of digital operations, told a panel session on accessibility and delivery of services.

When required, DVSA can provide someone to read the questions out, modify the language or let candidates take the test at home.

“There’s a percentage of people who can’t use digital and we have to admit that our service offering is not suitable for everybody,” said Fiddes. “For most people who get a driving licence… it’s a life-changing event. I have a responsibility to help those people go through that journey.”

One person who took the test at home used his new licence to apply successfully for a delivery job: “That’s changed his life, his carer’s life and his parents’ lives,” Fiddes said, adding that it shows the importance of catering for those with special requirements.

HMRC has to convince senior technologists not to retire

Some legacy computer systems run by HM Revenue and Customs can only be supported by technologists “well into their 70s”, technology transformation director Nic Harrison told the same panel session.

“We regularly have to persuade individuals not to retire on bended knee,” he said.

HMRC has a programme, Securing Our Technical Future, dedicated to moving such systems onto more modern hardware while leaving the software unchanged, but there are years of work ahead. Harrison said that projects to update existing systems are easy to put off for cost reasons, but “it’s coming home to roost a bit”.

One legacy technology Harrison is happy to support is the telephone. While HMRC might be digital-first, it is not digital-exclusive: “Real experts on tax should still be available at the end of the phone, that’s what the public wants,” he said. “The real challenge is not letting perfect be the enemy of good. We should have digital services that work most of the time for most people, but we then need to make provision for people that need extra help, whether through accessibility issues or plain ‘I just don’t understand this’.”

Birmingham calls service users ‘customers’ for a reason

Birmingham City Council considered “citizens” as the general term for its service users, but chose “customers” to include businesses and visitors as well, with assistant director Wendy Griffiths pointing out that last year the city hosted the Commonwealth Games. She told a panel session on transforming and enhancing user experiences that the city’s digital services sit alongside those provided by online businesses: “We are not being compared to what happens in Solihull or Coventry, we are being compared by our student population to Deliveroo.”

Wendy Griffiths at PublicTechnologyLive 2023. Photo: Tom Hampson/Visual Eye Creative

Treating people as customers means respecting their preferences, Griffiths added, such as by providing a choice of channels rather than forcing people to use a single technology. She added that some of the city’s 1,200 processes work well through automated self-service, such as reporting potholes or missed bin collections, but others do not, and they are unlikely ever to run all of them through a single customer relationship management system. According to research with panels of citizens, it is more important that people only have to tell the council about something once, however this works. Griffiths added that the city council’s 11,000 staff, who mostly live in Birmingham, are asked for their views on how its digital processes work for them as locals.

It can take a year to get access to government data

A government analyst or academic researcher asking for a data set can currently wait up to a year to receive it, said Dominic Hale of the Office for National Statistics.

To accelerate this process, the new Integrated Data Service managed by ONS is working on a broad agreement where users do not have to apply for data every time they want to use it. The service, currently running in a limited form before a full launch in 2024, is designed to provide accredited people with secure access to government data on society and the economy to support research and government decision-making. Hale, who is head of strategy for the new service, said that individual citizens are neither identified nor identifiable in the data, although it does include information on individual households. It should reduce bureaucracy, with academics likely to need to answer 11 questions to get access to data compared with 76 for an existing research environment.

DWP Digital thinks long-term about its staffing

Staffing a technology service properly means developing tomorrow’s staff as well as recruiting today’s, according to Aesha Zafar, head of strategic capability for the Department for Work and Pensions DWP Digital unit. “It’s about having that flow of people, ensuring that you’re not thinking for the short term,” she said, including work with schools and coding camps as well as setting up career pathways within the organisation.

Zafar said that DWP created a specific grade for junior technical staff for this reason: “We want a steady flow of people who come in at a junior level that can go up,” she said.

Aesha Zafar at PublicTechnologyLive 2023. Photo: Tom Hampson/Visual Eye Creative

Long-term development can involve training people who then leave for better-paid private sector jobs. Zafar said that some would return to the public sector later, as it offers breadth, impact and public service: “I feel there’s a public service element of training people for the greater good,” she said.

Financial challenges put ‘intense scrutiny’ on local government digital

The London Borough of Croydon’s financial challenges mean that the council’s technology team must continually demonstrate the worth of their work, its digital boss Opama Khan told PublicTechnology Live.

“So much good work has gone into setting up our digital delivery over the last four years. It is now under intense scrutiny [asking] ‘are these luxuries?’” she said. “Is this something that a financially struggling council should be investing in or should we strip it right back to IT support only?”

In November 2022 Croydon Council issued a Section 114 notice for the 2023/24 financial year, signalling it could not meet the legal requirement to balance its budget. The notice, which bars the council from new spending except in essential areas, is the third such notice it has issued in recent years.

Opama Khan at PublicTechnologyLive 2023. Photo: Tom Hampson/Visual Eye Creative

Arguing in support of digital projects work means highlighting practical benefits rather than discussing technology, according to Khan, the authority’s head of digital services, access and reach.

"We say: ‘This is the problem, this is what users are trying to do when they come to the council, this is what services need to help them do things more effectively’,” she said.

Khan said that she wants to use digital to make it easier to interact with the council, such as paying for a parking permit or a skip licence: "For me, it's always about engaging with our residents and making their user journeys better.”

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