UK government sets digital example

The UK is blazing a trail with digital government and picking up admirers along the way, writes Stuart Lauchlan

Today in London, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude is hosting the inaugural conference of D5, a new global group of five of the most digitally savvy governments in the world.

Alongside Mr Maude are representatives from the governments of South Korea, Israel, Estonia and New Zealand.

On the agenda are shared efforts to identify how to improve digital services, collaborate on common projects, and support and champion their growing digital economies, with specific focus on open markets, teaching children to code and connectivity.

It’s the latest indication of the UK’s rise to become one of the most influential exemplars of best practice in digital government, an ascendency that has seen other administrations around the world determine to follow the lead of the British.

GDS TEMPLATE

Perhaps the most telling indicator of the UK approach to digital government is to be seen in the formation of the Government Digital Service (GDS), a team of specialists who sit within the Cabinet Office with a cross-portfolio brief to enable, empower and assist in the shift to digital delivery of key government services.

Headed by executive director Mike Bracken, GDS has been a genuine success story since its inception three years ago, with Mr Bracken’s starting point being: “In a digital age, traditional policy-making is largely broken. It is slow, inflexible, unnecessarily complicated, afraid of technology and afraid of change.”

The most visible external manifestation of GDS work came two years ago with the launch of GOV.UK, a single online portal at the heart of government which by the end of this year will have replaced 320 government and agency websites. GOV.UK has saved an estimated £60 million in 2013-14 alone.

It is also a beautiful piece of design, picking up the 2013 Design of Year award for being what the judges called “the Paul Smith of websites… GOV.UK looks elegant and subtly British.”

Subtly British perhaps, but it’s something that caught the eye of the New Zealand government, which essentially did a “cut and paste” on the GOV.UK code to build its own version, Govt.nz .

Other administrations around the world have followed the lead of the British

New Zealand principal adviser for digital engagement Jared Gulian openly acknowledges the debt to GDS. “While Govt.nz didn’t use GOV.UK code or design during our alpha phase in February 2013, we realised back then that GDS was already solving the same problem we were facing,” he says. “Their commitment to user-centred design, site iteration based on feedback and transparency is very compelling. And we were smitten with their design principles.”

It’s all a great example of international collaboration between digital governments of a kind that the UK Cabinet Office has been keen to encourage. So, for example, an agreement has been signed with Israel to have the two countries work on new digital-by-default services for government, which follows a similar pact with Estonia.

OVER THERE FROM OVER HERE

All this has caught the eye of the United States government. In Washington, a lot of attention has been paid to GDS and the federal government’s ICT decision-makers have borrowed a lot to meet their own needs.

Take for example, 18f, a digital agency set up on the corner of 18th and F in Washington with a brief to be “a new way to procure, build and deliver innovative technology, digital services and public-facing applications”. Its messaging is perhaps a little more private-sector digital than formal government – “We make easy things easier and hard things possible!” – but the underling mission statement and operating principles are essentially lifted from GDS.

Alongside this, there’s a more obvious attempt to replicate GDS in the form of the US Digital Service (USDS), headed up by Mikey Dickerson, the man credited with pulling the ObamaCare HealthCare.gov website back from the brink. USDS has its role defined as “removing barriers to exceptional government service delivery, and remaking the digital experiences that citizens and businesses have with their government”. It’s textbook GDS.

CLEAR THINKING

Of course, the UK has borrowed from the US as well, with the Obama administration’s Cloud First policy by which all ICT procurements must consider a cloud-computing option first before deciding on an alternative – setting a precedent for the UK’s central government Public Cloud First mandate.

This was introduced in 2013 to encourage wider use of the G-Cloud procurement framework which has itself become an exemplar to governments around the world, including India, Canada and Australia.

UK G-cloud potential customers by sector

The most open acknowledgement of G-Cloud roots can be seen in Canada, where the G-Cloud First for Canada campaign by tech industry group CATAAlliance used the precedent of the British model to push for a similar approach to be taken there. “Adopting best practices, such as those in the UK, will accelerate processes and cost efficiencies, and have a direct impact on the government’s bottom line,” says CATAAlliance chief executive John Reid.

The message sank home with the introduction of a cloud-first programme modelled on the G-Cloud example of delivering commodity cloud services through an online storefront complete with transparent pricing.

Elsewhere this year the Indian government launched the GI-Cloud (Government of India Cloud), again heavily borrowing from G-Cloud best practice, while Australia has followed suit at both national and state levels.

In fact, it’s ironic perhaps that, while so many Commonwealth counties have looked to G-Cloud as the template to follow, closer to home the European Commission has set itself firmly against such national programmes, dismissing them as unfit for purpose.

But the GDS team in charge of G-Cloud can take comfort from the commentary of research director Massimiliano Claps, at analyst house IDC Government Insights, who concludes: “The UK government is ahead of the curve compared with other countries in Western Europe in terms of cloud-computing adoption across all deployment models.”