We’ve digitised public services – now it’s time to transform them. And legacy systems are on the hit list

In the eight years since the UK’s Government Digital Service was founded, more than 2,000 government websites have been consolidated into one place, one in five people now use that portal, GOV.UK, on a weekly basis and ‘nearly all’ interactions with government have now been digitised.

It’s an impressive record, but Kevin Cunnington, the Director General of GDS, wants to go much, much further. “We’ve done a lot of work in digitising services but we’ve not really transformed them,” he says after a recent keynote address at a GDS ‘Sprint’ event in Edinburgh.

Setting out an example of the DWP’s Carer’s Allowance, which he says has been fully digitised and is ‘40% more effective’ as a result (ensuring only those who are actually eligible can apply), processing still relies on someone taking an application and manually re-entering data into another system, which inevitably perpetuates the idea (and the reality) that government is still lagging behind in terms of the expectations of people using services online.

“There’s still all the legacy that there was previously behind the digital system and when you talk about digitisation that’s the process, [but] when you talk about transformation what we want to see is people rip out the back end services as well and completely transform them from start to finish,” he saids.

‘Legacy’ is a word he refers to often, and it’s clear that the new innovation report published this week by GDS Minister Oliver Dowden will focus on what government departments need to do to move into what Cunnington regards as the last phase of GDS’s journey, and that vision will depend on getting rid of quite a large part of inefficient, cumbersome legacy systems. Dowden himself mentioned the word ‘legacy’ 18 times in the report’s foreword. “As part of the next phase of digital transformation planning, we will develop a detailed cross-government view of the scale of the challenge of legacy technology, put in place plans to tackle it, and make sure there is continuous improvement in our technology estate,” he said.

Cunnington says: “With the next spending round being planned now it’s important that we don’t allow ourselves to relax and assume we’ve done it, we’ve still got lots to do and we still need Treasury and departments to support the agenda replacing legacy with more transformed services and make the big investments we need to do that.”.

GDS has grown into a department in its own right with over 800 people located in Whitechapel, near where most of London’s tech community tend to be based. The focus has shifted from “toys for technologists” into a much more user-centric view of who accesses government services (the Ministry of Justice being a much touted exemplar of success), with technology itself to some extent becoming the conduit to inform policy rather than the other way round.

Cunnington sees the innovation report as an opportunity to make the case for further investment. “You’ve probably heard me use the language of, ‘we need to cajole departments’ because I think departments need to help make the case to treasury, particularly in replacing legacy,” he adds.

There are also big programmes situated within GDS that he wants to ‘land’, most notably VERIFY, the digital identification service, which came under fire recently for its low sign-up rates. The innovation report makes it clear that VERIFY will ‘work collaboratively with stakeholders in all sectors to support the development of interoperable digital identity market in the UK’.

“That really underpins all of what we do digitally but it obviously underpins all of what we want to do in our ambition for data, because if we don’t have common identity we will never have a common record about people and we’ll never be able to use the different silos of data we have today effectively,” adds Cunnington.

Another major focus for Cunnington is on developing the GDS workforce – and the digital capabilities of civil servants more generally. GDS now offers a range of courses, from the very basic digital awareness, to advanced data science whereby government workers can be trained in AI by an Oxford, Cambridge or Imperial College Professor over five days; the GDS Academy will continue to devolve digital capabilities to the cities and regions of the UK, and it has so far trained up over 10,000 people. Academies have now popped up in Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle as well as London.

“The three areas we will focus are people – we’ll make sure we take on more apprentices, we’ll talk much more about the work we do in the academies, we’ll talk much more about process and within that procurement and we’ll also talk about the way treasury finances programmes like ours in a more flexible and dynamic way and we’ll be talking much more about technology, specifically about data but we’ll also be talking about for the first time and encouraging departments to get rid of their legacy. Their legacy systems just slow transformation down and it’s simply much more costly to secure modern services,” he says.

With the Government Technology Innovation Strategy having just landed – and a raft of ideas and pledges being discussed by candidates in the running to be the next Prime Minister (note: the GDS Minister Oliver Dowden was listed as a Boris Johnson backer), it will be interesting to whether the policy landscape for digital is given any further momentum in the weeks and months ahead.