Unlocking the potential of smart cities: All-Party Parliamentary Group calls for coherent UK Government strategy

Hong Kong city

By Steven McGinty

The role of smart cities is not to create a society of automation and alienation, but to bring communities together”. (Iain Stewart MP)

In June, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smart Cities published a report outlining the findings of its recent inquiry into how the UK Government can support the expansion of smart cities and enable the UK to become a world leader in the field.

It explains that although some people have concerns that smart cities are expensive gimmicks, or even something more sinister, the potential in becoming smarter could have a tremendous impact on the lives of citizens.  And ‘smart’, the report makes clear is not just about clever technologies, but any innovative approach or solution that brings together industries or government departments to solve everyday problems.

Included in the report are the number of ways smart approaches can improve city life, such as:

  • Making cities accessible for all – improving the design process can ensure that people with physical disabilities are not prevented from enjoying the public spaces.
  • Empowering citizens in democracy – new technologies can give citizens a voice by connecting them with each other, as well as those running services or those making decisions.
  • Reducing the strain on our health service – providing citizens with access to their own health records can encourage greater responsibility for their own healthcare.
  • A more efficient, flexible transport system – improving transport information can help citizens plan journeys and smart ticketing options can allow citizens to travel easily between transport services.
  • Creating a cleaner environment and enhancing air quality – smart technologies can help address environmental challenges, such as improving traffic flow to help limit harmful emissions in congested areas.

If cities are looking for a blueprint to success, there have been numerous smart city initiatives introduced across the world. For example, the report highlights how the Scottish Cities Alliance, a joint initiative between Scotland’s seven cities (Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Perth and Stirling) and the Scottish Government, is encouraging collaboration and the take-up of technologies designed to improve air quality, traffic flow and cut pollution.

There’s also two examples from further afield. Estonia, which is widely recognised as a smart city leader, is viewed as an example of best practice in data sharing. The country provides citizens with control over their data by providing easy access to their education, medical and employment records through an online portal (with the option to request changes). And in Singapore, the “Smart Nation” initiative has become known for its use of a coordinating body to provide leadership to their smart cities agenda.

In concluding the report, The APPG make a series of recommendations to effectively drive forward the smart cities agenda. This includes:

  • encouraging the promotion of a smart culture;
  • convening smart standards and data; and
  • promoting the UK’s smart city expertise overseas.

In particular, a number of interesting points are raised about how to promote a smart culture, from ensuring smart city initiatives focus on the outcomes for citizens to putting collaboration with other cities (and the sharing of best practice) before any form of competition.

Iain Stewart MP, chairman of the APPG on Smart Cities, summarises the report’s main message, as well as calling for the UK Government to create a strategy. He argues:

A coherent strategy from central government is needed to ensure a joined-up approach between businesses and those who work most closely with and on behalf of their citizens – local government. By fully embracing the smart cities approach, central government can empower local authorities to show ordinary people how smart can positively impact on their everyday lives.”


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A digital identity crisis: is slow progress costing citizens and business?

A steel padlock on a brown wooden gate

By Steven McGinty

The government’s flagship digital identity programme, GOV.UK Verify, has not been short of problems lately. However, news that benefit claimants have been unable to register for the new Universal Credit (UC) because of problems using the service highlight that its failings are having real-world consequences.

In February, government statistics showed that only 30% of claimants were able to use GOV.UK Verify – well below the projected 80%. Further, research in the London Borough of Croydon found that even with one-to-one support only one in five people could prove their identity.

A history of problems

Problems were identified in the National Audit Office’s Digital transformation in government report in March 2017. The NAO found that the service, which was expected to simplify how citizens verified their identity to government agencies, had missed its initial launch date of 2012. Instead, only nine out of twelve services had been launched four years later in 2016.

Government departments who were expected to come on board have also thought twice. In December 2017, NHS England’s chief digital officer Juliet Bauer announced that they’d be developing their own digital identity system (although did suggest that GOV.UK Verify may be used for services which have less sensitive information). Similarly, HMRC announced last month that they will develop their own identity service – based on their 15-year-old Government Gateway Service – with rumours suggesting they have no confidence in the government’s solution.

With this backdrop, it’s unsurprising that Civil Service Chief Executive and Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary John Manzoni has brought in management consultancy McKinsey to conduct a review into how digital identity could work within the public sector.

Community Weekly’s Editor in chief, Bryan Glick, suggests this review could lead to a fundamental rethink and the introduction of ‘Verify Compliant’. He explains that:

Verify could become a brand name, rather than a product produced by GDS. That brand name will encapsulate a set of digital identity standards, for use across the public and private sectors. If you want to be part of the UK’s digital identity infrastructure, you need a product that is “Verify compliant”.

The impact of Brexit

David Bicknell, editor at Government Computing, suggests that Brexit preparations have pushed the transformation strategy – including GOV.UK Verify – off the agenda.

However, Government Digital Service (GDS) director general Kevin Cunnington has a different take on things. In his view, the GDS is continuing to deliver improved digital services, highlighting that GOV.UK Verify is available to local councils and is used by the Land Registry to support their new digital mortgage service.

Why the UK needs to tackle digital identity

People are increasingly using digital services to shop online, pay bills, and to interact with different levels of government. However, even though technology has dramatically changed, much of how people prove their identity is still paper based. For instance, paperless bank account holders still have to request paper documents to prove their address (possibly at an additional cost).

New industries such as the sharing economy, which includes the likes of Airbnb and Uber, rely on secure digital identity verification. Government has a responsibility to lead from the front and protect this ever-growing number of customers. For example, Airbnb customers across the world have experienced thefts from properties from criminals using false identification.

More generally, there has been a rise in identity fraud. According to fraud prevention charity Cifas, this now represents the majority of all fraud cases (approximately 56% in the first six months of 2017). An inability to verify identity is likely to have contributed to this increase.

In addition, many people are financially and socially excluded by a lack of photographic identification ID such as a passport or a driver’s license – particularly those from low income backgrounds or who have been in prison. This lack of ID can act as a barrier when applying for government benefits or financial services.

Gunnar Nordseth, CEO at digital identity provider Signicat, also argues that a failure to introduce a digital identity scheme could have serious consequences for the UK’s financial industry (especially the emerging fintech sector). He explains that GOV.UK Verify isn’t ‘fatally flawed’ but needs to be more ambitious, observing that:

Unlike other European digital ID schemes GOV.UK Verify is limited to the public sector, does not support financial services and is not interoperable with its continental counterparts.”

Final thoughts

Tackling the digital identity crisis won’t be easy. But recent statements acknowledging the challenges of GOV.UK Verify and the calling of a review suggest the Government Digital Service (GDS) are listening to concerns.

However, this time for reflection mustn’t last too long. Getting digital identity right has the potential to improve services for citizens, create efficiencies in government and business, and ensure the UK’s place as a world leader in the burgeoning digital economy.


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Delivering digital transformation: the mixed successes of the Government Digital Service

By Steven McGinty

It’s been a period of change for the Government Digital Service (GDS) since losing influential Executive Director Mike Bracken in 2015. Since then, the service has experienced a string of high profile departures, leading many commentators to suggest that the much-lauded GDS could soon be coming to an end.

However, in the November 2015 Spending Review, then Chancellor George Osborne announced that the GDS would receive an extra £450 million over four years – a significant increase on their previous budget of £58 million per year.

Chancellor Osborne highlighted that these additional funds would help fuel a “digital revolution” in central government, and in particular create one of the most digitally advanced tax administrations in the world.

But has new funding – and possibly the public show of support – led to a digital revolution?

In the beginning….

In 2011, the GDS was formed to implement the ‘digital by default’ strategy – a key proposal of UK Digital Champion (and founder of lastminute.com) Martha Lane Fox’s report into the delivery of online public services.

The GDS’s first major project, GOV.UK, has in many ways proved to be a success. Launched in 2012, the publishing platform brought together over 300 government agencies and arm’s length bodies’ websites within 15 months. Replacing DirectGov and Business Link alone has saved more than £60m a year. Early testing showed GOV.UK was simpler for users, with 61% completing tasks on the new Business Link section; compared to 46% on the old website.

GOV.UK has also been viewed as an example of best practice, with GDS team members supporting countries such as New Zealand with their own digital government efforts.

However, it’s not been entirely without its controversies. In October 2016, the Welsh language commissioner accused the UK government of weakening Welsh language services, explaining that provision on the site had “deteriorated astonishingly” since the introduction of GOV.UK. A recent GDS blog article has also identified challenges in making content accessible for users. For example, 73% of the content on GOV.UK is looked at by fewer than 10 people per month.

Government as a platform

A major theme of the GDS’s work has been the introduction of a platform approach to digital government – principles proposed by technology guru Tim O’Reilly. In 2015, Mike Bracken set out a new vision for digital government, highlighting the need to create:

“A common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services.”

GOV.UK is one such service.

But the concept has gone on to inspire new services such as GOV.UK Verify – a platform which enables citizens to prove who they are when using government services. This common service was a world first and is being used by organisations such as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Additionally, GOV.UK Notify – a service which sends text messages, emails or letters – was introduced in January 2016. It helped support the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) transition some of their services to online only, as it provided them with the ability to send thousands of notifications at the one time.

National Audit Office

On 30 March 2017, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report into the government’s track record on digital transformation.

The report concluded that the GDS had an early impact across government, successfully reshaping the government’s approach to technology and transformation. However, Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, also observed that:

“Digital transformation has a mixed track record across government. It has not yet provided a level of change that will allow government to further reduce costs while still meeting people’s needs. To achieve value for money and support transformation across government, GDS needs to be clear about its role and strike a balance between robust assurance and a more consultative approach.”

In particular, the NAO highlights concerns over the GOV.UK Verify programme. The service has proven difficult to adopt for some departments, which has led to the GDS allowing the use of alternate identity services. According to the NAO, this significantly undermines the business case for GOV.UK Verify, and provides a poorer experience for users on government websites.

The Institute for Government

Influential think tank, the Institute for Government (IfG), has recently published two reports on the progress of digital transformation.

In October 2016, the report ‘Making a success of digital government’ estimated that the UK Government could save up to £2 billion by 2020 – through efficiency savings – by creating better digital services. Major digital transformation successes were also highlighted, including the online registration to vote by 1.3 million people by May 2016, and the introduction of a new digital road tax system (removing the need for paper disks).

In terms of the GDS, the IfG expressed similar views to the NAO:

“We found that GDS has played an important role in bringing new digital capability into government. But, in the absence of a new digital strategy, its role is unclear. GDS needs to re-equip itself to support a government that now has rapidly developing digital capability, and high ambitions for change.”

In February 2017, the government published a new digital transformation strategy, including attempting to clarify the ‘evolving’ role of the GDS.

However, this hasn’t stopped the IfG making several new recommendations for the GDS in their latest digital government report. These include:

  • clarifying the GDS standards and distinguishing between standards and guidance;
  • re-examining the role of the Government Gateway – an identity assurance platform – and of GOV.UK Verify;
  • taking a more active role in the digital services market, such as designing the Digital Marketplace for different users; and
  • creating a store for Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to encourage their use throughout the public sector.

Final thoughts

The GDS has played a vital role in creating a new vision for digital government. However, evidence has suggested that over recent years the pace of change has slowed, with key initiatives such as GOV.UK Verify facing a variety of challenges.

In the coming years, it’s likely that the Brexit negotiations will be top priority for politicians and many government departments. It will be important that the GDS works with these departments and looks to prioritise services that are vital for managing the Brexit process.


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Modern language learning in a globalised world

Elementary school students raising hands. View from behind.

by Stacey Dingwall

In November, the Teaching Schools Council published Ian Bauckham’s Modern foreign languages pedagogy review, which looked at modern foreign languages teaching practice in key stages 3 and 4 in England.

The EBacc and modern languages

The review was announced in May last year by schools minister Nick Bole, shortly after it was indicated that 3,500 more language teachers would be needed in order to realise the government’s desire for 90% of pupils to sit the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), which includes a language component.

Only 40% of English pupils currently take the EBacc. The Education Datalab’s estimate of the number of additional language teachers needed to increase this to 90% represents an increase of almost 40%. The government has missed its recruitment target for language teachers for the last four years, achieving just 87% of its target in 2015.

The Education Datalab’s latest data on the EBacc, published in October, suggests that the number of pupils who sit the qualification has stalled because there hasn’t been a significant increase in the number of entries in languages.

The Bauckham review

Ian Bauckham’s review emphasises the “clear educational, personal, cultural, social, cognitive, career and business benefits in being able to communicate confidently in another language”. However, it notes that the latest edition of the CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey found that over 50% of employers were not satisfied with their employees’ foreign language skills.

Although this is problematic for the country on a variety of levels, the Bauckham review points to the difficult context in which schools find themselves with regards to teaching foreign languages. Aside from recruitment issues, teachers are also dealing with some negative attitudes to foreign language learning from pupils and their parents, who may have had a poor language learning experience themselves. The review highlights that it is much easier for non-native English speakers to acquire the language due to its global dominance.

Schools also have to juggle the competing pressure of increasing the number of pupils taking STEM related subjects. The issue of a shortfall of people with STEM skills in the UK has received a great deal more attention from researchers and policymakers in recent years than a lack of those with language skills.

Language learning in Scotland: the 1+2 approach

In 2012, the Scottish Government published “Language learning in Scotland: a 1+2 approach”. Intended to be rolled out across two parliaments, the approach was included in the government’s 2011 manifesto, which stated their intention to “introduce a norm for language learning in schools based on the European Union 1+2 model – that is we will create the conditions in which every child will learn two languages in addition to their own mother tongue”.

The Scottish Government’s ambition for the approach is that by 2020, all children will start to learn an additional language from P1 that they will continue studying until at least S3. They will also be given the opportunity to start studying a third language no later than P5. This ambition also fits in with the government’s focus on closing the attainment gap during its term, with the language approach working to achieve key goals such as increasing the employability of school leavers.

Overall, the Scottish Government says its key aim in improving and expanding language learning in schools is that “young people are equipped with the skills and competencies they need in our increasingly globalised world” – a prudent ambition in increasingly uncertain times.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles. 

Government as a Platform: a new way of thinking about digital transformation

Multi-coloured blocks on the table, with a green dinosaur

By Steven McGinty

The term ‘Government as a Platform’ (GaaP) was coined by Tim O’Reilly, a technology entrepreneur and advocate.

The Government Digital Service (GDS), the body responsible for UK Government digital transformation, has started to introduce ‘platform thinking’ to government services. However, according to a survey carried out in February, three-quarters of civil servants hadn’t heard of or didn’t understand ‘Government as a Platform’. This may be concerning for government, whose efficiency programme greatly relies on successful digital transformation.

On the blog today, I’m going to reflect on the concept of ‘Government as a Platform’, as well as outlining its adoption in the UK.

The ‘gubbins’ of government

Mark Foden, an organisational change strategist, explains the platform-based view of government in a simple (and humorous) video.

In his view, government has traditionally been made up of independent departments, providing services such as benefits, pensions, and tax. These services use bespoke technology provided by large technology companies, over long contracts.

However, the platform based-view is different. He illustrates this by splitting a government department into three sections:

  • Levers and dials – the part of the service the user interacts with (e.g. websites and mobile apps)
  • ‘Gubbins’ – in simple terms, it’s the common capabilities (e.g. checking identity) and the bespoke services (e.g. calculating tax) that government services need to function
  • Machinery – the fundamentals of technology (e.g. mainframe computers, storage, and databases)

Foden explains that a key element to platform thinking is the ‘gubbins’ section. Advances in technology now make it possible to untangle these ‘gubbins’ government services, without affecting others. In practice, this means that common capabilities used by government, such as making payments or checking identity can be developed and used across departments. Websites can also be shared to create consistency across government digital services – a sort of ‘brand government’. This approach limits the number of bespoke services developed in ‘silos’ (or within departments).

Additionally, having this separation between common capabilities and bespoke services also presents opportunities to involve a greater number of suppliers.

Potentially, this approach could be worth £35 billion in savings across government.

Organising Government as a Platform

Mark Thompson, senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, suggests three principles to enable Government as a Platform to succeed:

  • gradually moving towards more common capabilities and reducing departmental bespoke services
  • developing common capabilities across the public sector must be a priority for digital transformation
  • optimising the relationship between common capabilities and bespoke services within government departments

The UK approach  

GDS

A widely used definition by the GDS is that digital government should include:

 “a common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services.”

GOV.UK was the first attempt to transform how the UK does government. Launching in 2012, the publishing platform brought together over 300 government agencies and arm’s length bodies’ websites within 15 months. Replacing DirectGov and Business Link alone saved more than £60m a year. Early testing also showed GOV.UK was simpler for users, with 61% completing tasks on the new Business Link section; compared to 46% on the old website.

GOV.UK Verify has also been introduced – an identity assurance platform which allows people to prove who they are when using government services. The common service is the first of its kind and is being used by organisations such as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to build new services.

More recently, GOV.UK Notify, a service which sends text messages, emails or letters, has sent notifications to its first users. GOV.UK Pay also just secured compliance with the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard.

NHS

Although the GDS have taken the lead on platform thinking, the NHS launched NHS Jobs, a shared recruitment service, in 2003. The service has been remarkably successfully, generating over £1 billion in savings.

Mark Thompson suggests this is because of its platform approach. The Department of Health (DoH), working alongside Methods Consulting, convinced over 500 NHS employers to give up their own recruitment services and to make use of this common capability. The website is the biggest single employer recruitment site in Europe, with one unique visit every two seconds. The service has also become a valuable commodity with suppliers willing to provide the service at near cost, and compete on providing innovative services. The creation of this high quality recruitment service has therefore become a spur for innovation – something which is at the heart of Tim O’Reilly’s work on Government as a Platform.

Local government

Adur and Worthing council have recently taken a platform approach to their digital transformation. Paul Brewer, digital lead for the council, notes that it was struggling on several fronts, including IT outages and systems replicating inefficient paper-based processes.

To solve this problem, the council went through a capability mapping exercise. They identified departments which had common functions, such as undertaking case management, taking payments and booking appointments for customers. With this roadmap, they developed a CRM system to manage customer interactions (including social media), and purchased a platform which supports the creation a range of new IT products. The new approach enabled the council’s waste management service to support full mobile and remote working. Within a year, the department saved £20,000 on software and the equivalent of 1.5 staff members.

Interestingly, the council did not built their own platform, on the GDS model. Nor did they purchase an inflexible technology. Instead, they chose a third way by purchasing the building blocks of capability, and controlling where the capability was slotted in.

Final thoughts

The lack of knowledge about Government as a Platform within the civil service is somewhat disheartening. However, the GDS has introduced many new approaches to government and shown practically how they can work. Projects such as GOV.UK and GOV.UK Verify have been well received and countries such as New Zealand have looked towards the UK for their own digital transformation.

In August, the UK was ranked as global leader for e-participation on the United Nations E-Government Survey, ahead of Australia and South Korea.


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Increasing participation in sport and physical activity

by Stacey Dingwall

Our latest member briefing focuses on increasing participation in sport and physical activity in the UK, looking at successful examples of increasing activity and ways in which policymakers are trying to overcome the barriers to participation in sport and physical exercise. You can download the briefing for free from the Knowledge Exchange publications page.

Physical activity levels in the UK

Despite the longstanding and valued position in British society of sport, getting people of all ages involved in sport and physical activity has become increasingly challenging. While current UK guidelines for aerobic activity recommend that adults aged 19 and over should spend at least 150 minutes per week in moderately intensive physical activity, the latest statistics on physical activity from the British Heart Foundation indicate that:

  • Only 67% of men in England and Scotland report meeting recommended levels of physical activity, and only 59% in Northern Ireland and 37% in Wales;
  • Women are less active than men in all UK countries, with 58% reporting meeting recommended levels in Scotland, 55% in England, and 49% in Northern Ireland and 23% in Wales;
  • Physical activity levels vary by household income; in England in 2012, 76% of men in the highest income quintile reached recommended levels, compared to 55% of men in the lowest income quintile.

The implications of inactivity

Low levels of physical activity not only have health implications, but also economic – in the UK, inactivity has been estimated to cost the NHS £1.1billion (Allender, 2007) with indirect costs to society bringing this cost to a total of £8.2billion.

Government action

Our briefing highlights the range of policies and interventions implemented by the UK and devolved governments to try and increase participation in sport and physical activity among the population. These include the Department of Education’s £150m per year Primary PE and Sport Premium Fund; and Scotland’s sport strategy for children and young people, Giving Children and Young People a Sporting Chance.

Good practice – home and abroad

In addition, the briefing profiles successful interventions at the community level, such as Let’s Get Fizzical, a physical activity programme for young people delivered by StreetGames in collaboration with Birmingham City Council. International examples of good practice are also highlighted, including the Active Healthy Kids Canada programme and the North Karelia Project in Finland.


 

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The Government Digital Service: successes, turmoil, and the focus for the future

By Steven McGinty

In April 2011, the Government Digital Service (GDS) was launched to lead the digital transformation of government. The focus was on making public services digital by default (a policy which envisions most public services being delivered online), and simpler, clearer and faster to use.

Their first major project was the development of GOV.UK. It was to act as the primary source for UK government data and would replace a number of existing websites, including DirectGov. Overall, GOV.UK has been viewed as a GDS success story.

In the latest GDS progress report, it was highlighted that:

  • Over 300 agency and arm’s length bodies’ (ALB) websites had been transitioned over to GOV.UK by the end of 2014;
  • The GOV.UK website averaged 12 million weekly unique visitors in the first quarter of 2015 (25th most used website in the UK);
  • The GOV.UK website saw 13.6 million unique visitors and 21.2 million visits in the last week of January 2015 (this was the likely the result of the 31st January Self-Assessment tax return deadline).

However, GOV.UK has not been without its critics. In February, the Register revealed documents that said that the GDS knew that GOV.UK was:

destroying useful online services and replacing them with trendy webpages bereft of useful information

One noted failure was the transition of the Home Office visa and immigration site to GOV.UK. According to their own analysis, the GDS did not have a good enough understanding of the users’ needs.

GDS in turmoil?

At the beginning of August 2015, Executive Director of the GDS Mike Bracken announced he was leaving. In an interview, Mike Bracken explained that he was leaving due to the “stresses and strains” of the role. The current GDS Chief Operating Officer Stephen Foreshew-Cain will move up and replace him.

There have also been a number of other senior GDS leaders departing. These include:

  • Deputy Director Tom Loosemore
  • Director of Strategy Russell Davies
  • Director of Design Ben Terrett
  • Head of User Research Leisa Reichelt
  • Transformation Programme Director of the Government Digital Service Michael Beaven.

These changes have led to speculation about the future of the GDS. Last financial year, the service had a budget of £58 million and approximately 700 members of staff. Computerworld have suggested that the GDS could undergo substantial cuts as part of the HM Treasury’s spending review.  If so, the impact could fundamentally change the GDS’ role.

The future

In August, Matt Hancock MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, reiterated his support for the GDS. He said:

“the work that GDS is doing, and the vision of Government as a Platform, is changing the core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes.”

The Minister then went on to emphasise that the GDS has extremely talented people and has a lot more to contribute in the future.

In addition, Eddie Copeland, Head of Technology Policy at the Policy Exchange has outlined 5 points of focus for the ‘next phase’ of the GDS. These include:

  • Be guardian of the rules – the government should lead the way in defining the standards of how front-end government IT should work, although should not be concerned about who provides it, whether that’s public or private sector.
  • Focus on the user / citizen experience – the government should focus on providing a positive customer experience and creating online transactions that are needed.
  • Lead on open standards for data – the use of open standards would reduce the technical barriers to sharing information between different systems.
  • Be an informed customer – failed IT projects were often the fault of the government, therefore the government needs to become a smarter, more demanding customer.
  • Scale best practice – all departments should learn from the successes of the GDS, and try to implement innovative solutions where possible.

 Final thoughts

It’s likely that the GDS will play an important role in the continued digital transformation of government services. However, some – including Eddie Copeland – believe that the GDS will become a smaller organisation.  As a result, there may be opportunities for the private sector to get involved in supporting the digital transformation, particularly if they can provide a solid business case.


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Is our electoral system going through the biggest change in a generation?

By Steven McGinty

The biggest change in a generation? Quite simply: yes.

Last year, we saw an unprecedented focus on the democratic process, with high profile votes such as the Scottish independence referendum, as well as revolution in the way in which citizens vote through the introduction of the Individual Electoral Registration (IER). It’s likely that this degree of interest in the political system will continue as we move towards the general election in May, with a number of related topics being up for debate.

I’ve therefore decided to highlight some of the most notable election and referendum-related issues, as well as look at which might come up in the general election campaign.

Individual Electoral Registration

The introduction of IER in June 2014 was a major step in the delivery of digital government services. It was implemented to provide a more modern service and to help combat electoral fraud. The IER system is essentially a hub that was built by the Government Digital Service. The hub links up with the Electoral Management Software (EMS) in each local electoral area. There is no central database of voter details and the data has been received and saved locally, and is deleted from the Hub within 48 hours.

Yet although these changes have been introduced to improve the system, Dr Toby James, Senior Lecturer in British and Comparative Politics, suggests that they could have the opposite effect, and lead to reduced levels of voter registration.

Political engagement

The Scottish independence referendum was described by some as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, which would have permanently changed the political landscape of Scotland. The plebiscite saw 84.6% of the population voting, the highest turnout a nationwide election has had since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918. The election also gave 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote, which resulted in 109,533 young people signing up before polling day.

It will be interesting to see if this high level of political engagement and the lowering of the voting age will be reflected across the UK in the future. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has already accepted proposals by Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to lower the voting age in Holyrood elections permanently; although a House of Lords committee has raised concerns over these plans.

European referendum

The referendum on Europe could potentially be the big issue of this year’s general election. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Conservative Party have promised to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union if in government. However, the Labour party, at the moment, are against the idea of a European referendum.

Due to the fragmented political environment, it is quite possible that there will be another coalition government. In this scenario, parties will negotiate and smaller coalition partners may change their stance. At this stage, other parities including the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Green Party and the SNP may also have an impact.

The latest polls are too close to call: with Ipsos MORI showing the Labour Party leading the Conservative Party by 1 point and YouGov showing the Conservative Party leading the Labour Party by 2 points. If the Labour Party win, it’s unlikely that there would be a referendum on Europe; however if the Conservative Party win, it’s likely that there will be.

Boundary changes

Boundary changes, although not as high profile as the debate on Europe, could also figure in the next parliament. In 2013, a Conservative backed plan to reduce the number of constituencies was rejected by their coalition partners and the opposition parties.  However, there are currently a number of electoral reviews being carried out by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. For example, North Dorset Council will make changes to their boundaries that will come into force at the local elections in 2015.

Devolution

Greater devolution within England is also expected to be a major general election issue.  Although directly elected mayors have been part of the political landscape since the early 2000’s, not many cities have chosen to introduce them due to low voter turnout. However, in November 2014, the chancellor, George Osborne announced that Greater Manchester would have a directly elected Mayor, who would have a host of new powers for the region. This increase in powers, alongside a greater desire for more local decision making, may lead to a higher voter turnout than has previously been seen. It will be interesting to see if this triggers demands for mayors from other regions.

Police and Crime Commissioners

The spotlight will also be on the role of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC). Similar to the mayoral elections, turnout has been very low for PCCs elections, with the average turnout approximately 14.7%. If the Conservative Party wins the general election, it is likely that PCC elections will continue across England and Wales, despite their low turnout. Conversely, if Labour wins the election, it is likely that they will scrap PCCs, arguing that the Conservatives have wasted millions of pounds on PCC elections.

Whatever the result of the UK election, 2015 looks like being another big year for all aspects of elections management and voting.


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Further Reading:

Understanding science and innovation: key ingredients

Female scientist in a lab.

Image from Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License.

By Steven McGinty

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower” Steve Jobs

From penicillin to Dolly the sheep, the UK has always been at the forefront of scientific innovation. Last month, the Chancellor, George Osborne, gave a boost to the scientific community when he welcomed the idea of a National Institute for Materials Research and Innovation in the North of England. The Chancellor said that this would create new jobs and attract further investment, emphasising that the government are committed to the creation of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

This is just one example of how scientific innovation can be used to support economic development. Below I’ve identified some of the key ingredients to developing innovation, as well as providing several examples of good practice across the UK and Ireland.

Innovation infrastructure

The North West Business Leadership Team (NWBLT) report highlights the importance of having the infrastructure in place to support innovation. Crucially, it suggests that the ability to create partnerships between organisations and across business, government agencies, and academia, helps firms to gain a competitive advantage. For example, the Virtual Engineering Centre, a partnership between the Hartree Centre and the University of Liverpool, supports companies such as Jaguar Land Rover to improve their business performance through the adoption of the latest techniques and tools.

Business clusters, particularly digital clusters, have also proven to be important for driving innovation and increasing productivity. These clusters involve bringing together the right innovative people and providing them with access to the right resources in a small geographical area.

Some notable examples include Tech City in East London, which is a cluster of technology and creative firms, and Dublin’s Digital Hub, a project based in the Republic of Ireland, which contains a range of firms, focused around digital media and entrepreneurship. The clusters blend technology companies with organisations from other sectors, including retail, leisure and advertising.

They also play a key role in helping start-ups to develop. For instance, it’s been shown that the development of the nanotechnology industry has been related to a small number of scientific clusters across the world.

Start-ups and agile SMEs

Start-ups and SMEs are important for bringing new products, technologies and services onto the market.  Universities can play an important role in providing a wide variety of support to SMEs. Several programs already exist in universities across the UK, including the University of Leicester’s “SME Support to Growth” project, which offers advice on exporting internationally, and the University of Birmingham’s Accelerating Business-Knowledge Base Innovation Activity (ABIA) project, which provides varied and tailored support to SMEs working in science and technology in the West Midlands, including access to support from doctoral researchers.

Additionally, the University of Manchester has also been very successful in launching SMEs.  This includes Nanoco, a firm that develops and manufactures quantum dots and semiconductor nanoparticles that are used in a number of areas, such as bio-imaging and solar energy.

The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) also highlights that SMEs can find it difficult to access early stage financing, particularly since the economic downturn. Therefore, it’s important that the government introduces and supports policies that provide access to finance. Two examples that already exist include the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) and the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS), which provide tax relief to investors who buy shares in high risk SMEs.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) has also raised the issue of investment in SMEs. They have voiced their concern over the UK government’s cuts to research spending, highlighting that the UK is below the EU average on research spending and is 21st in the league tables of research spending, behind countries such as Belgium and the Czech Republic. The report suggests that increased funding should be given to Innovate UK, a body that supports innovation in business.

Highly skilled workforce

The Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills emphasises the importance of having people with the necessary science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills to generate new knowledge. In addition to technical skills, the report makes it clear that the UK must produce people who have an understanding of business management and the entrepreneurial skills to develop their innovation commercially.


Further Reading:

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on a range of economic development issues. Abstracts and access to journal articles are only available to members.