Ex-HMRC IT practitioner and Head of Solutions Architecture at WSO2, Christopher Davey, reflects on a recent debate on the remaining challenges the public sector ecosystem faces.
Christopher Davey, Head of Solutions Architecture at WSO2, an API-first provider of software that gives enterprises the flexibility to deploy applications and services on-premise, on private or public clouds or in hybrid environments, and easily migrate between them as needed.
At one time, the phrase successful UK Government IT project' was a contradiction in terms. But ever since Francis Maude's powerful interventions at the start of the Coalition Government in 2010-and especially since Martha Lane Fox's landmark Revolution, not Evolution' report that same year-immense progress has been made in digitising the British state: from the ever-increasing usefulness of GOV.UK to dogged progress on digital identity; from a cloud-first procurement policy to all the impact the Government Digital Service (GDS) has made. Perhaps the biggest success of them all was the rapidity with which national digital systems were created from scratch to support the furlough scheme and other highly agile responses to COVID-19.
Does that mean it's job done'-that, to hark back to a very different political leader and set of ambitions, we've arrived at Tony Blair's joined-up government'? No major Department or Whitehall stakeholder would say we still don't have more progress to make. The question is, how much progress? How close is Boris Johnson's Britain to being able to use IT at the centre of his strategy to Build Back Better?
Government still needs to get better at using data'
WSO2 recently hosted a roundtable discussion around Public Sector embracing digital transformation which was moderated by Henry Rex, Associate Director, Government and Health at techUK, member of the Forbes Technology Council and Emergent Technology CTO' Sally Eaves, and Charles Baird, a Data Architect at the recently created (April 2020) Data Standards Authority (DSA), which is leading the cross-government conversation around data standards.
All agreed that there has been amazing progress around what was effectively digital transformation' before the term was invented this past decade in Government IT but it's not time to open the champagne just yet. Government still needs to get better at using data-better at sharing data across departments, better at sharing data across industry, better at analysing that data and better at using that data to make more informed decisions, says techUK's Henry Rex. But Michael Gove said in June, we must get better at this' and set out a range of key priority areas around APIs, collaboration and skills around data visualisation to inform policy-making.
Over the last 18 months, we've definitely seen this heightening of digital in all sectors, even in health and other sectors that have traditionally been slower in terms of digitisation, adds Sally Eaves. But she anticipates the pressure to get more digital is only going to get stronger, as, Today, citizens have much higher expectations of government to deliver to them in critical ways that support everything we're doing in our everyday lives, whether that's around goods or services or infrastructure or health or wellbeing.
Charles Baird agrees. I completely agree about the expectations of citizens, he notes. We're building better services for citizens, and they are our focus - they are looking for end-to-end services that are accessible and effective.
Toward an API-first agenda'?
Which begs the question: how? Our discussion kept coming back to the same topic: the importance of sharing data across government. We need to encourage data flow across organisational boundaries, and that ultimately comes down to APIs, says Charles Baird. At the DSA, we believe that the API is at the very sharp end of data standards-you have to get data standards right.
So, a new concept at the centre is emerging: if cloud was the main fulcrum of reform in the 2010s, in the 2020s a new focus is needed, not just cloud- but API-first. Charles Baird adds: We really do believe you need to have an API-first agenda to map together these departments-and that an API-first approach is best and [we need to] embed it into front-end services, across departmental boundaries and with a focus on the citizen.
Imagine how much quicker useful digital services for the public could be delivered if there was no more reinvention of the wheel and much greater re-use of proven technology components-like just taking address lookups direct from Ordnance Survey, national insurance numbers from DWP or tax details from HMRC and building services on top of them. And the great news is that a lot of the technical challenges for doing this are (more or less) solved: there's been a massive leap forward over the last few years on this front, and things are accelerating now in terms of ability to share data.
The example of Open Banking
Sounds brilliant, but what would an API-first agenda look like at ground level? The answer is that we don't know yet, as this work is just beginning, and education is going to be needed to get it sparking. For Charles Baird, the blockage is very simple: lack of visibility. You can't build something with an API if you don't know that that API exists, he says. You need a way to find them and not just find assets you can use but find restrictions on the data sources that are available that you can't use for sensitivity reasons.
Education, but also governance, then. If UK Plc in the 2020s wants to be all about sharing data, it can only do that if we're always 100% sure it's only being shared with the right people. That means legislation but also workable frameworks for safe handling of citizen and public sector datasets need to be drawn up and implemented. Personally, I think the example of the immense success of the move (driven by APIs) to Open Banking in the UK is one that can be replicated profitably here.
But we may need some digitally powered help to get there. Around the world right now, there's a thousand laws that affect data privacy and security and governance, depending on where your data is going and the level of sharing - particularly across borders, Sally Eaves reminds us. This is incredibly complicated, and I wonder if we might not have to employ a fair amount of automation to make it happen.
However we do it, though, we all agreed that - to channel Ian Dury for a moment - there are data reasons to be digitally transformation-cheerful. Henry Rex concluded:
There is absolutely an appetite for data sharing, but there's also caution -and rightly so: we're talking about very sensitive data, from patient records to tax information, this data couldn't be more sensitive in terms of access, and so Departments are being cautious.
But equally, they all actively exploring how to do it in a safe way.
I agree. I am also sure that the API is the ideal route of travel to get there; but I'd be interested to hear what readers think.