Event round-up: Building the Smarter State 2022

Catch up on all the highlights of this year’s techUK flagship public sector conference

Set against the inspirational backdrop of The Royal Society, techUK’s eighth annual Building the Smarter State conference – sponsored this year by KPMG – brought together digital leaders from across the public and private sectors to discuss and showcase how technology is shaping public services.

This year the event focused on how we secure and sustain a smarter state, with some of the key take aways from the day’s insightful speeches and panel sessions being the need to:

  • collaborate on solutions that deliver the right outcomes;
  • be more joined-up and make the user experience more seamless;
  • address institutional blockers such as funding models; and (critically)
  • build the right digital skills and capabilities in order to future proof the delivery of smart, sustainable and secure public services.

Read a summary of each of the keynotes and panel sessions below:

Putting sustainability at the heart of digital strategy in the public sector (Sponsor Keynote – KPMG)

Col Campbell, Partner, Infrastructure, Government & Healthcare Technology Transformation from the conference’s headline sponsor KMPG, kicked off proceedings by taking the audience through the steps to a connected enterprise for the public sector and when to know if optimisation of transformation is the right answer to drive sustainability. The ideas underpinning this talk came from a recent report commissioned by KPMG called Voices of 2030 in which KPMG asked public sector leaders and visionaries what the world might look like in 2030, how it go there and what the big challenges were along the way. Based on the voices in the report and its own experience and insights in working with governments, they’ve identified some key trends/areas of transformation in digitalizing government:

  • A new, seamless relationship between computers and humans in the future, recognising the importance of cognitive capabilities.
  • The power shifting to the individual with the decentralization of data.
  • The citizen developer as digital natives take control.
  • Sustainable growth enabled through digitalisation.

Campbell highlighted these areas, as well as well as delving into how to take advantage of those things and set our public services up for success. The talk concluded with the observation that, by 2030, the transformation pattern should be ‘Connect–Sustain (by architecting & maintaining digital solutions in a green way)– Optimise. With optimization being the ultimate goal in the ‘GovVerse’. You can find out more about KPMG’s Voices of 2030 report here.

Making the business of government better through digital and data (Government Keynote – Megan Lee, Chief Strategy & Transformation Officer, CDDO)

Megan Lee, Chief Strategy & Transformation Office at the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) delivered the morning keynote which set out what government is doing to deliver better services through digital and data in order to exceed public expectations, equip the Civil Service for a digital future and enhance government efficiency and security.

By focusing on Mission 6 of government’s digital transformation strategy, CDDO’s objective is to ensure government is:

“Moving from pockets of progress to enduring transformation.”

Indeed, there have been ‘pockets of progress’ but as Lee noted, 50% of current government IT spend just keeps the light on; and this has often been because of the siloed approach previously taken in government. Government has estimated that only 10% of its services are ‘great’ (that is, consistently useable and efficient); 40% are partly transformed (so not really transformed and therefore there’s an opportunity for significant improvement); and 50% have some opportunity for some improvement. And on those ‘great’ services – sometimes they’re only great if you have the technology to access them and the policy underpinning them is simple.

In terms of its own capability sphere, Lee noted that government has made progress, but it’s not yet achieved true digital transformation. Indeed, only 4% of Civil Servants are digital professionals, compared to an industry average of 8%.

In order to deliver government’s digital transformation strategy, the following has been set out: all departments agreed to promote a ‘buy once, use many times’ approach to technology; all ‘nationally important’ systems will be hosted in appropriate environments aligned to the cross-government cloud and technology strategy; all ‘re-rated’ legacy systems identified through an agreed cross-government framework will have a remediation plan in place; government will systematically identify and capture opportunities arising from emerging technologies; and all departments will increase sustainability through the lifecycle of their technology and services.  

To help deliver the outcomes of the strategy, CDDO recognises that the way in which government does things needs a fundamental change: this includes the way it hires digital professionals and upskills the Civil Service, as well as raising data standards to break down silos and improve interoperability and shifting to a product-centric way of working. Lee pointed out that, although this sounds pretty standard, it will take major institutional change and this means CDDO is working with the Treasury to shift the funding process and make it more agile; it’s working to include user-centred design in the policy development process; and it’s working with the Government Commercial Function: “to make it as easy as possible for government to work with suppliers to deliver the right solutions”.

So, how can the supplier community help to deliver this transformation? Lee set out four key areas in which government needs suppliers’ support:

  • Ensuring a return on taxpayer funding
  • Accelerating government’s shift to modern, cloud-based computing
  • Helping it to be the frontier of technology adoption
  • Building government’s capability

But we’ve been here in various shapes and forms before, so what’s different this time?

The creation of CDDO has brought about a big shift in the way government is led – CDOO is the arbiter, bringing together departments, the Treasury, GDS and the Cabinet Office to collaborate in order to make better decisions for government and agree what it can realistically achieve. With this strategy, CDDO has managed to capture the imagination of both government colleagues and the public – indeed, it’s got the buy-in of department CDIOs, CTOs, CDOs, Perm Secs and Ministers, which should help hold the delivery of the strategy (which has specific, measurable commitments) to account. And, with its work with the Treasury and the Government Commercial Function (as outlined above), plus a move to an outcome-focused way of working, CDDO is helping government to address some of the blockers that have stopped true transformation in the past.

Moving from legacy technology to a sustainable smarter state (Morning panel session)

Panel speakers:

  • Theo Blackwell MBE, Chief Digital Officer for London
  • Chris Howes, Chief Digital Information Officer, DEFRA
  • Megan Lee, Chief Strategy & Transformation Office, Central Digital and Data Office

With moderator: Laura Webb, Partner Public Services Technology Transformation, KPMG.

The morning plenary panel of this year’s conference focused on how to future-proof services for all UK citizens to sustain a smarter state. Our panellists explored how public services can better utilise data and emerging technologies to meet societal challenges of climate change and upskilling the workforce to sustain and deliver digital services (at scale) that meet the needs of citizens.

Topics covered in this lively discussion included how the cross-government digital strategy aligns with government’s net-zero and sustainability goals; how departments like DEFRA are utilising digital to tackle climate change and developing good practices for a cross-government greening ICT approach; using data better in order to tackle big societal issues; and how we futureproof our public services to prevent the next legacy tech.

Following on from KPMG’s talk on what the landscape will look like in 2030, Megan Lee noted that users expect interactions with government to be no different from those with private sector. As such, it’s important to have the right foundations in place to foster sustainable, user-friendly services – including having in place the right capabilities so people know what best practice looks like, addressing institutional blockers and ensuring services and processes are more joined up. The scale of the challenge is huge, but so is the opportunity for government to me more systematic in its service delivery.

Chris Howes highlighted that working with government’s supply chain is key to it achieving net zero and its sustainability objectives, as this is where the majority of its emissions come from chain. The originally named DEFRA e-Sustainability Alliance, brings suppliers together with government to embed sustainability into the latter’s approach to technology: this is about to be renamed the Government Sustainability Alliance and will work on breaking down the barriers around knowledge sharing as well as delivering tangible outcomes.

Also touched upon was the correlation between efficiencies and digital investment including, as Theo Blackwell highlighted, investing in ways to share data so users get the most value from it.  Balancing government’s use of automation with its insourcing capability and the implementation of the ‘buy once, use many times’ rule will help government to achieve efficiency – and this will require up-front investment. Indeed, it was agreed that Government cannot achieve transformation without the proportion of digital capability increasing, and this began a discussion around the skills gap and the necessity to map out the kind of digital and data jobs that will be needed in the future to showcase where the investment is needed in this regard to ensure sustainable delivery of public services. 

And it’s not just digital specialists we’re talking about; a similar effort is needed outside of the DDaT function in upskilling policy and commercial specialists in order to ensure true user-centred service transformation. This will require the addressing of further institutional barriers such as the high turnover of staff between government departments.

However, although inhouse capability is a key focus for government, Howes highlighted that it couldn’t possibly retain the level of expertise across the service delivery ecosystem without the support of suppliers. Government needs and wants to work with suppliers, not just on art of possible now, but also in the future.

The panel concluded with a discussion around the digitizing of poor processes causing a significant number of problems (that is, it’s often not the tech that’s the problem), and how to prevent this in future – for example, by training the policy profession on good process design and ensuring that the focus is always on the user and delivering the right outcomes.

Indeed, Howes pointed out that, increasingly, the role of the CDIO isn’t to bring about technological change it’s to bring about the organisational change that delivers the right service: “The role of the CDIO is now less about digital and more about service.”

Tackling data challenges in government to empower digital transformation (Breakout Session – Made Tech)

In our first breakout session, Jim Stamp and Haroon Ahmed – Head of Data and Commercial Partner for Data respectively at Made Tech delivered an entertaining talk on tackling the data challenges in government. Those challenges include a lack of data literacy; a lack of skills and the inability to hire and retain staff; and a lack of understanding of data (data lineage), including a limited understanding of how to access it.

One of the key observations within the duo’s talk was that:

“Data is nonsense without intelligence.”

Made Tech finds that clients will often state that they want to ‘do data science’, but Stamp and Ahmed highlighted that the critical aspect is tying your data back to the users – and really thinking about: what do you think the data can answer, and what problems can it solve? Other points made during the session included:

  • Sharing data is perceived to be hard – ensure that governance colleagues are working with engineering colleagues to help address the challenge.
  • Trust is key – you may have a statutory right to use data, but you’re also responsible for ensuring best practice in looking after, and using, it properly.
  • It’s important to understand where the data is coming from and that it’s around the right groups that need to use a service.
  • Data ethics should empower your projects, not block them. Indeed, privacy and ethics should be build into platforms and ways of working from the start.
  • Metadata – data about data is key, because it helps you to know if you can trust it.
  • ‘Digital, data and cyber security all need to be part of the same strategy’ – it doesn’t make sense to separate them.
  • You need to be able to justify the outcomes/the why of using ML and AI. GDPR means that users have the right to have a human view of why the decision was made.

Read more from Made Tech on unlocking the potential of your data to build smarter, faster services and on digital transformation.

Sustaining the smarter state – digital skills (Government Keynote – Thomas Beautyman, Deputy Director Government Digital Capability, CDDO)

The afternoon keynote from Thomas Beautyman, Deputy Director Government Digital Capability at the Central Digital and Data Office, began with the statement that there is a ‘dawning realization that government hasn’t kept pace with technology and organizational change’. And with 3827 vacancies across its DDaT profession, there’s been a lot of soul searching about what kind of Civil Service it really needs.

The problem isn’t just about digital makers and tech experts; it’s about everyone else working in government, too. Raising the floor and the ceiling for digital skills is needed, and government now has a plan that’s based on workforce intelligence – and it’s better than government’s ever had before. This is outlined in Digital Skills At Scale (Mission 5) of the cross-government digital and data strategy.

The plan is focused on developing civil servants to play their part in delivering government’s digital transformation in order to ensure it doesn’t fail the citizens it exists to serve (that is – us all) – whether through the Apprenticeship Levy, upskilling existing civil servants with the help of clearer pathways, and/or identifying the pathways into DDaT. To ensure inclusion and diversity, government needs to procure in a way that takes into account accessibility. And government also needs to carefully consider when and where it uses 3rd party resources because it can’t have core skills and services outsourced, so there has been a wholescale review of the employee platform:

“moving from capturing talent to cultivating talent”.

Will the plan succeed? Echoing what Megan Lee said earlier in the day, Beautyman pointed to the fact that this strategy has been built with, and agreed by, leaders across government –and so the buy in is there this time.

Beautyman also recognised that there needs to be transformation at a much earlier stage to make digital interesting and attractive to young people (indeed, this sits within DCMS’s Digital Strategy), but he is confident that with suppliers’ help, government can attract and develop people within this sector.

You can read more about Mission 5 of the cross-government digital and data strategy here.

Delivering at pace through collaboration (Breakout Session – Leidos)

In our second breakout session of the conference, Tim Crofts, Vice President of Sales & Strategy at Leidos chaired and insightful panel discussion about delivering at pace through collaboration, in the face of challenges which are increasingly complex and ambitious.

On the panel were Angela Essel – Head of JSARC, Home Office; Toby Jones – Head of ACE at Home Office; Frank Lee – Interim CEO Institute of Collaborative Working; and Roz Barrance – Director of Business Development, Leidos: and each provided their perspective on how teams need to adapt and think differently in order to accelerate the delivery of large programmes and deliver outcomes that matter.

For Angela Essel partnership is key – the Home Office needs people that provide solutions to mitigate the threats that it faces; and it’s important to have a way to identify partners within the ecosystem. At pace means you need to have a clear goal: the Home Office’s is protecting society, but part of that involves shaping the market and giving it the correct demand signals around what’s required and (crucially) the policy outcome. While at the same time giving policy holders an indication of what’s out there to fit the requirement.

Toby Jones highlighted some of the things that get in the way of delivering capability at pace, including uncertainty about what the problems are and the solutions needed, and not putting users at the centre of those solutions. It was also noted that collaboration should focus on what it is we’re trying to achieve, while pace is about leadership and understanding that energy and purpose is needed.

Frank Lee raised the point that often ‘people think they’re collaborating when they’re actually cooperating’; and highlighted that collaboration is an important tool in helping organisations to access resource that they might not have in key areas. And Roz Barrance noted that collaboration is really about working to get the best out of everyone, with trust being at the heart of delivering a successful outcome. Indeed, importantly, working with others enables us to move from ‘the why’ to ‘how’ things are delivered.

The discussion concluded with the panelists’ thoughts on what makes collaboration successful. Their top tips included:

  • Convince policy makers to bring in industry early – this ensures they have the right insight into how to deliver their policies better.
  • Establish trust and buy-in and you’ll get the desired outcomes – collaboration is key to building the right behaviours and culture.
  • Build a community to strengthen the focus on shared objective(s). Bringing together policy makers, DDaT teams, commercial teams and suppliers to build a solution will will deliver a better end-user experience, as well as a market that potentially has solutions that are exportable.
  • Remember that humans are at the heart of collaboration – mindset, behaviours, trust and communication are key to successful collaboration.

For more on the topic of collaboration, read this guest blog from Leidos on Collaborating our way out of a challenging legacy.

Creating services fit for the future (Fireside Chat– Tom Read, CEO & Director Government Digital Service)

This year’s ‘fireside chat’ took place between CEO & Director of the Government Digital Service (GDS), Tom Read and techUK’s Head of Central Government, Heather Cover-Kus, and the conversation focused very much on creating services that are fit for the future.

Thinking about what the next five to ten years of digital government look like, Read emphasised that it’s important not to lose sight of the good things that have been built – such as Gov.UK – and to ensure that these are well looked after. Furthermore, GDS is building low-code-no-code platforms and trying to move to the next generation of digital service – that is, connecting data and ensuring services are designed around the user.

But how does the UK compare to other countries in its digital ambitions? Read conceded that while the UK Government is good at user-centred design, it’s shockingly behind on data integration. There are elements that help other nations to perform better in this area – for example, the Danish government mandates the use of digital ID, while the UK wants its services to be optional and not forced. One of the overarching problems is that trust in government is low – particularly in young people – but this will probably improve when government delivers better services without glitches. And this turned the conversation to how GDS is making sure One Login works for everyone.

Read highlighted that there is no single way for people to prove their identity; indeed, 7% of people in the UK have no form of photo ID, so government needs to ensure that they can prove their identity too. GDS is, therefore, looking at options for social vouching to help address this challenge.   

When One Login goes live the average citizen should feel the difference in their interactions with government because it will make their online journey simpler and get rid of friction point. But then there’s the ‘what happens next?’ piece, and this will be around how to connect data across government. The ambition is that government gets to a point where it can be proactive for citizens and say: ‘Based on what we know about you, you’re eligible for [this service]. Would you like to apply for it?’ Read noted that, most of the time, data sharing is broadly fine between government departments, but it is necessary to get MOUs in place. And government is working on trying to get legislation passed to allow data sharing specifically for One Login at the moment.

Public sector digital leaders’ visions for a smarter state (Afternoon panel session)

Panel speakers:

  • Simon Bourne, Chief Digital, Data & Technology Office, Home Office
  • Karl Hoods, Chief Digital & Information Officer, BEIS
  • Nadira Hussain, Chief Executive Officer, Socitm
  • Paul Maltby, Chief Digital Officer DLUHC

With moderator: Georgina Maratheftis, Associate Director – Local Public Services, techUK

In the afternoon plenary panel of this year’s conference, we heard from digital leaders across public services about their digital ambition in delivering smarter, more efficient and citizen-centric services.

First, we looked into the challenges, with moderator Georgina Maratheftis asking the panellists to tell us what was keeping them up at night as digital leaders. The answers ranged from resource and capacity; managing complex critical relationships between key departments and organisations; demand for talent outstripping supply; issues around the ethical use of emerging technology and data and not forgetting the bigger picture; nothing being joined up; and the breadth of critical national infrastructure that is under one’s care.  

The discussion then moved on to what the cross-government digital and data strategy means for each of the panellists. The department CDIOs collectively own the strategy and so it resonates: ensuring that they have modern, secure, efficient and effective technologies that deliver the right outcomes – is central to their remit. Maltby noted that, although the strategy wasn’t a radical shift for this department, it is a visible sign that the centre of government is supporting the delivery of transformation in a sensible and sensitive way. Adding to this, Hoods highlighted that working with other departments allows them to share lessons and experiences and use them to the collective advantage.  

On their wish lists for a Smarter State included improved enjoyment for people in place – utilising innovation to help with modernisation; interoperability; tapping into the creative thinking from industry; focusing on the problems that need to be solved, rather than the tech, to understand what the user really needs; reliable data; and, of course … increased capability and skills. 

And on that topic, we heard about what each of our panellists about efforts being made to address the current capability gap. Hood noted that BEIS is doing everything it can and highlighted issues with higher turnover levels and the need to look more holistically at this, as well as implementing graduate, apprenticeship and return-to-work initiatives. Bourne echoed that his department is also pulling all the levers, and emphasising that this will always involve a partnership – it’s impossible to success on this issue without everyone working together and that includes government working with industry. Maltby spoke to the usefulness of DDaT capability frameworks in understanding what the roles are; and Nadira Hussain pointed to leadership and ‘soft’ skills being as important in delivering the collaboration piece, as well as highlighting programmes focused on getting more women into leadership roles.

The conversation concluded with the panellists’ top tips on what suppliers can do to move from a ‘sales’ partner to a ‘value added’ partner:

  • Have a passion for delivering outcomes in the public sector.
  • Understand the problem(s) that the department has to solve, including the context.
  • Help the public sector to see the art of the possible (establish innovation labs and demonstrate what good looks like).
  • Bring your best capability.
  • Don’t bid if you can’t deliver.
  • Help the public sector to invest in future leaders.

You can read about our members' insights on Building the Smarter State here.

Want to get involved in shaping the agenda for next year's Building the Smarter State conference? Why not have a chat with our team about sponsorship for 2023? Contact details are below.

Georgina Maratheftis

Georgina Maratheftis

Associate Director, Local Public Services, techUK

Heather Cover-Kus

Heather Cover-Kus

Head of Central Government Programme, techUK

Ellie Huckle

Ellie Huckle

Programme Manager, Central Government, techUK

Jill Broom

Programme Manager, Cyber Security and Central Government, techUK