Public Sector Technology Roundup: Episode 1

15 Aug 2023

Explore the latest insights in our public sector technology roundup podcast. We cover legacy systems, technical debt, AI adoption, and challenges faced by government and local authorities. Discover the impact of AI and Machine Learning on local councils, along with updates on health tech, including the collapse of the Babylon and Mindmaze merger. Gain valuable perspectives on digital transformation, single sign-on, and our upcoming events at the Leeds Digital Festival. Stay informed about key developments shaping the future of technology in the public sector.


Links & Sources


So First up, this week we read an interesting article from David Knott, the Cabinet Office’s recently appointed CTO. In his regular newsletter ‘A Lot to Learn’, Knott posted an insightful take on ingenuity and the all-too-common risk of unnecessarily extending the life of a solution or system rather than overhauling it. 

In the end, the post called for honest conversations between leaders and stakeholders about the risks of overly stretching the shelf-life of critical systems. David Knott spoke in more detail about his approach to legacy in a similarly recent interview with public technology. 

In said interview, he claimed that the legacy challenge within central government is far from being unique. Legacy technology and technical debt have been a challenge that the UK Government has been very vocal about legacy for over three decades. In 2021, the National Audit Office released a report on the challenges of implementing digital change and listed eleven different strategy papers going as far back as the 1996 Government Directive. Each of these strategy papers drew attention to the challenge of legacy systems. 

In a similar vein and seemingly unnoticed by the media last month, we read over the written evidence that was submitted to the Public Accounts Committee by technology companies Splunk and DXC Technology as well as the University of Sussex’s Digital Futures at Work Research Centre. The call for evidence was part of an inquiry titled “Digital transformation in government: addressing barriers to efficiency”. 

Splunk is a software platform that lets you search, analyze and visualise machine-generated data, and it works with enough public sector customers to have some interesting data-driven insights. In its response, Splunk noted that legacy tech issues were causing a chronic lack of visibility across and between departments which in turn, fundamentally obscures their ability to identify and quickly respond to problems. 

What was perhaps more interesting was that, across all three submissions, the most pressing area of concern centred on skills. This highlights the fact that technical debt can be borrowed from more than systems, there is a skills and culture legacy challenge that’s arguably bigger than the technology and systems challenge. The fight against legacy is always going to be that much harder without the underlying cultures that champion good design and development. The government is not lacking in healthy development cultures. However, they are isolated with no clear path to amplifying them across organisational boundaries.

At the end of June, the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) published a blog post on the Use of Generative AI. It told us that the CDDO is actively guiding the UK government in adopting generative artificial intelligence (AI) and Large Language Models (LLMs) while ensuring responsible usage. The guidance emphasised the benefits and potential risks of AI, encouraging civil servants to leverage emerging technologies for productivity, to comply with data protection protocols, and to verify and appropriately cite outputs from Generative AI. A few day’s later it was reported that the Cabinet Office had published formal guidance for Civil Servants encouraging them not to write policy papers or other formal documentation using GenAI Tooling.

Not one to miss the party, at Codurance we’ve been quietly studying and experimenting with tools such as Githubs Co-pilot and AWS Codewhisperer. Our findings are that, in short, these tools are a capacity force multiplier for technical teams. While cautiously optimistic, they were keen to emphasise the symbiotic relationship between AI and human technical experts, advocating for a balanced approach that preserves the principles of Software Craftsmanship. You can find out more about this in Matthew Belcher and Danish Javed’s blog and e-book titled ‘Is AI About to Revolutionise Software Development’. Matthew will also be hosting a discussion about this very subject on the 26th of July at the Leeds Digital Festival where he will be joined by Saile Villegas from SeeaI, Katherine Holden from techUK and Lewis Ford from Aire Logic. 

Central government is not alone in not wishing to miss out on the bounty of AI, local authorities are equally keen to quickly realise some of the resource-saving capabilities. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has long been lauded as an automation life-jacket for increasingly underfunded local authorities but RPA has traditionally struggled to move beyond the more routine and repetitive of tasks. AI and Machine Learning (ML) offer councils the opportunity to intelligently leverage their data at pace and to deliver better and more targeted services. Many councils are looking to strengthen their internal capabilities around AI and ML. For example, only this week, in an article by UK Authorities Mark Say, it was announced that Wirral Council had contracted Simpson Associates to help them onboard Microsoft's Fabric Platform for future ML development projects. 

In another local Government update. Our recent work on implementing effective single sign-on (SSO) and identity access management with clients has had me reading about SSO across the public sector. With the Government Digital Services'  (GDS) One Login unlikely to be available for local government any time soon if at all, it prompted me to think more deeply about whether or not Local Authorities were actually calling for it. Luckily Dave Briggs, Adult Social Care Digital Lead at Lambeth Council posted about this very subject recently in an article on LinkedIn.

He addressed a post from 2016 which claimed that single sign-on or citizen portals were unwanted and unnecessary. In summary, Dave’s article insists that there is still no user need for expensive and difficult-to-implement single sign-on. This has prompted discussion about an over-homogenisation of approach to technology and it’s one of the pitfalls within digital transformation generally. We’ll also be discussing some of these pitfalls at the Leeds Digital Festival on the 20th where Codurance Co-founder Sandro Mancuso will lead a panel with Paula Scurfield of Axiologik, Mo Anoshehpour of Lhasa Limited and Rachel Morgan of Flutter. 

And finally, over to some of the news from the health-tech space. This week we were intrigued to learn that the merger between Babylon and Mindmaze has collapsed, leaving the once championed health-tech company potentially looking to sell its GP at Hand service. The service supports over 100,000 NHS patients in London, including myself, and was an early mover in the AI chatbot space attracting both awe and criticism alike.

We anticipate that the downfall of Babylon will be eagerly watched by the government as they seek to lessen the burden on NHS staff through digital tools. Indeed it was only last month that health minister Stephen Barclay announced that the number of NHS Health Checks carried out more than doubled from 2022 to 2023. What’s more, the Department of Health and Social Care  (DHSC) and NHS England are already working on a new digital cardiovascular health-check tool, which aims to serve one million patients and is to be rolled out this coming spring.

That’s about all we have in terms of our recent musings on public sector technology news. We’ll share the transcript including links to articles and sources on our website and hopefully there we’ve done some of the legwork for you in capturing a snapshot of what’s going on.