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For the past 13 years, the Government ICT Conference has celebrated ambitious projects and innovation in the public sector. This year’s real success stories came from a broad spectrum of Government departments, including GOV.UK, Government Digital Services (GDS), the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

Scott Logic has recently entered the public sector, bringing the expertise of more than 30 consultants experienced in digitising public services and project managing digital outcomes. We already have two live projects, and new offerings in Big Data and software testing. And with the recent launch of the Digital Outcomes & Specialists (DOS) 2 framework, on which Scott Logic is listed, all Government departments can now easily tap into the expertise and innovation within the UK’s tech SME base.

On the Agenda: Disruptive and Innovative IT

The conference theme, innovation and profiting from disruptive and innovative IT, was well served by examples: GOV.UK’s three Platforms as a Service (PaaS), Verify, Notify and Pay are simplifying transactions across the public sector and beyond, and in particular, the DWP outcomes mentioned were impressive. Its speakers detailed £168 billion transactions per annum, 10 million data records per day, 93 per cent of projects on track, and £10s millions saved each year. All departments noted that consumerisation sets expectations for Government interaction, so Amazon and PayPal are driving the experience.

The Chair’s opening remarks by Head of Public Sector, Tech UK Rob Driver, celebrated the efforts of GDS in helping the UK to achieve first place in the UN’s e-Government Index. Maintaining a user-centric approach to service design, this ensured that interaction with Government is secure, seamless and cost effective. Rob also spoke of building strong relationships across departments, specialisms and organisational boundaries, to build a foundation of standards for future innovation. It was interesting to hear how much Tech UK does with Government, and having been to its own events, I realise there is more that service providers could do via Tech UK.

Simplifying transactions across the public sector

Next up was Director of Common Technology Services at GDS, Iain Patterson. First, he brought to life Verify, Notify and Pay. Verify proves who you are online by asking questions and performing other checks using photo identification and financial information. It was interesting to note there are seven providers for GOV.UK Verify to promote innovation, from well known brands such as Royal Mail and the Post Office, to new entrants CitizenSafe and Digidentity. We also saw key uptake among the DVLA and HMRC, with DWP also recently entering this arena. There were some tough questions from the audience around how to prevent fraud that exposed the cat and mouse game to stay ahead, although no serious breaches have yet occurred.

Notify was then covered. This allows Government services to send notifications to users via a simple integration with their web applications or back office systems. They can use the interface to upload batches of messages they’ve built or extracted from other systems. GOV.UK Notify provides flexibility and resilience by having a number of SMS, email and post providers. It’s straightforward to swap these providers in and out, based on price and performance. The audience was excited but Notify is still in beta, and while some users already see the beta in their passport delivery notifications, its full roll out is due in September.

Finally, GOV.UK Pay was discussed. This involves building one simple, convenient way to process payments for every Government service. It provides a common method for users, whether applying for a passport or renewing a licence. Interestingly, this was spawned from the Ministry of Justice, as prisoners needed a cashless system to buy treats, but it has grown to become a highly ambitious (and difficult!) project. GDS is building this centrally, along with Companies House public beta service, the Environment Agency, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.

Central vs Local Government

It was telling to see the difference between these Central Government initiatives and those in Local Government. Many within Local Government have had to forge ahead with little funding and scarce talent (hence the need for re-usable tech such as Verify). Dionne Lowndes, the Head of Customer Service and Digital Leader for Staffordshire County Council, showed us Mystaffs, an integrated, personalised and scalable app to join two tier council services via mobile: county, district and police. It uses colours to personalise content in a local context, and signposts relevant services to engage users. It tries to encourage self-management and promote social action. Dionne estimated £150k in call centre cost savings through channel conversion to app use. Although the effort by Staffordshire County Council is clear, it was also striking how costly this would be for several Local Authorities to replicate for all their services, given their shrinking budgets.

Pushing the Barriers

The afternoon keynote was Pushing the Barriers of Public Sector IT by Mayank Prakash, Director General for Digital Technology at DWP. Mayank eloquently described DWP Digital as a partner, not a provider, combining the power of internal expertise with that across the public, private and academic sectors. He gave good examples, including Check my Pension (all pensions!) and Universal Credit, as well as a collaboration with NHS Digital via a colocation hub in Leeds. He stressed the need to get the problem statement right, and not jump straight into solution mode. Then he said we could get creative with all the new tech to solve the problem in a user-centred way. This is something we have seen ourselves and recently commented on in a recent blog post about Digital Transformation: Getting Started and Avoiding Common Pitfalls. Also noted as important was the move from outsourcing to achieving collaborative and creative outcomes by working with high performing SMEs.

Overall, the conference was well attended by around 300 delegates, and featured many good examples of innovation and delivery from advanced Government departments. Happily, the Scott Logic exhibition stand was busy with guests from the Home Office to the Cabinet Office, and many other departments in between. And many visitors wanted to talk about Big Data and Cloud-based technology.

It will be interesting to see how this event compares to the Digital Government 2017 event in May, which we are attending and will cover the next phases of digital Government, and look at how digital technologies will further transform public services.