Public Sector Technology Roundup: Episode 3

23 Nov 2023

A bit later than planned this month but for our third episode of our round-up podcast the dominant themes of skills and AI rebound with post-cabinet-shuffle announcements about AI Hit Squads and plenty more to reflect on for November:  

Product Panel Event

Product Panel Nov email header

A Whole Team Approach to Effective Product Discovery: Panel Discussion

5.30pm – 7.30pm
29 November 2023
Codurance, 3 Sutton Lane, 3rd Floor, London EC1M 5PU

Product discovery is the bedrock of successful products that deliver great customer outcomes. And a whole team integrated approach to product development across all teams should ensure that products are built with all stakeholders' buy-in.

In this in-person panel discussion, we’ll bring together industry experts from both the private and public sector to share their knowledge and customer stories to help you gain valuable insights and inspire you to put discovery at the heart of your product delivery

Speakers: Rachel Lyons, Principal Product Manager, Codurance; Mash Badar, Co-Founder and Head of Product, Codurance; Sarah Timms, Product Leadership & Coaching Expert;  Andy Curry, Managing Director,  Lion & Mason; David Heath, Head of Profession for Software Development, Government Digital Service (GDS)

Links & Sources


Hello and welcome to another episode of the Public Sector Technology Roundup Podcast, I’m Austin Earl and in today’s episode we’ll dive into the recent developments across the full spectrum of public sector technology. 

The past few weeks have had us both futuregazing with the AI summit and brimming or bucking with nostalgia depending on your political persuasion, with the return of David Cameron to the Cabinet Table as Foreign Secretary. The reshuffle brought about significant changes in the government, most notably the dismissal of Home Secretary Suella Braverman.

Amidst the headline-grabbing alterations, there were broader shifts in the Cabinet and Ministerial ranks that demand the attention of tech policy enthusiasts. The DSIT shake-up, for instance, saw the departure of two popular junior Ministers, Paul Scully MP and George Freeman MP, leaving a void. Saqib Bhatti MP stepped in to assume Paul Scully's former role as Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy.

Despite barely settling into his new position, Saqib Bhatti found himself thrust into the lead on the Government's plans to amend the Digital Markets, Competition, and Consumer Bill within just 24 hours. Meanwhile, Andrew Griffith MP, arriving from the Treasury, joined DSIT, having previously supported the Treasury's efforts to rescue Silicon Valley Bank. 

Overshadowed by the latest bout of political upheaval last week, you may have been forgiven for missing a few government announcements so we’ll try our best over the next few minutes to pick our highlights from the past month.

Most recently we’ve learnt that Deputy Prime Minister, Oliver Dowden, has unveiled plans to establish an artificial intelligence "hit squad" at the heart of Whitehall, comprising 30 highly skilled AI and data engineering experts with an annual budget of around £5 million. Tasked with reducing the size of the UK civil service and enhancing public sector productivity, the unit aims to streamline decision-making processes and address priorities like welfare fraud, asylum claims processing, and NHS interactions. 

Despite the potential controversy around AI involvement in sensitive decisions, Dowden emphasizes a collaborative role with human decision-making processes. The unit also aims to apply AI to correspondence and call handling to drive efficiency, contributing to the reduction of the civil service workforce, already set to shrink by 66,000 jobs. While economists express scepticism about AI's efficacy in boosting public sector productivity, proponents argue for its potential to create a more content workforce by alleviating administrative burdens. Dowden encourages the AI unit to focus on practical projects rather than formulating an expansive cross-department strategy, acknowledging engagement with open-source models and collaborations with private companies like OpenAI and Anthropic when appropriate.

Last week the CDDO published a blog post about its new Digital Assessment Framework designed to be a comprehensive tool for departments to assess their digital maturity. Developed collaboratively with departments and subject matter experts, the framework covers various practice areas such as technology efficiency, accessibility, sustainability, and agile methodologies. It introduces a three-tiered assessment approach—'Good,' 'Better,' and 'Best'—encouraging organisations to at least meet the 'Good' criteria while providing a pathway for continuous improvement.

Here at Codurance, we’ve been on our own journey knitting together the various continuous improvement and quality assessment best practices we’ve picked up along the way. These have culminated in the launching of our CIP and SQA service lines, more details of which we’ll provide in the notes.

In terms of the CCDO’s Digital Assessment Framework, we’re told that these have been piloted with diverse organizations, to facilitate self-assessment, enabling departments in turn to benchmark their performance against the standard. While primarily intended for self-assessment, critical elements will be centrally monitored by the CDDO through the Digital Dashboard, aligning with the government's commitment to achieving a "good" standard for product-centric structures and agile ways of working. 

Speaking of improvements many will have noticed the redesign of the website to account for an increased proportion of users accessing the site via mobile devices. In a blog post written by the team, they explain that while the homepage has been a pivotal entry point for users, it hadn't undergone significant changes since 2014. The user-centric approach is evident in making the homepage easier to read, featuring a bulleted list for popular links and increased spacing between sections to enhance scanability. The platform's responsiveness to user behaviour insights, gathered through analytics and user feedback, is driving iterative improvements. 

Now, at the same time and in another throwback to the 2010 coalition government, Sir Francis Maude, then Minister for the Cabinet Office 2015, advocated in a discerning appraisal of civil service accountability and governance, for the reunification of the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO). This recommendation, articulated within Maude's Independent Review, characterises the extant arrangements as "unclear, opaque, and incomplete."

Now two years following the great schism, presently, CDDO heads up strategy and standards, while GDS focuses on crafting essential services for the government. Maude claims that this compartmentalisation is frequently resulting in “multiple (and mixed) signals," he said. 

Maude's solution is a reunion of sorts – merging GDS and CDDO into a single team. He advocates for clear leadership, suggesting that each major function needs a single chief officer. While acknowledging GDS's positive contributions, particularly in providing government services, the review points out the challenge of needing to sell these services internally without a firm mandate backed by spending controls.

In another critical appraisal of central government, earlier this month SOCITM the Society for Innovation, Technology and Modernisation, while applauding the general direction of the CDDO’s latest update to its roadmap, raised concerns about the limited vision and roadmap for leveraging digital technology and data to improve lives and enhance community well-being. 

The absence of attention to communities and places was highlighted, as the voice of local authority digital leaders, questioned the roadmap's omission of community engagement, societal implications, and partnerships crucial for digital initiatives' success.  

The assessment also underscored the importance of skills development but expressed concern over its narrow focus. While welcoming attention to skills in the roadmap, Socitm argues for a broader, place-based understanding that challenges centralised thinking. The roadmap, according to the critique, falls short by not capitalizing on the opportunity to build on local public sector innovation, and establishing pan-public sector partnerships.

An emphasis on local Skills development was also a key speaking point at a recent roundtable hosted by the popular local government magazine, the Municipal Journal or The MJ and attended by prominent Local Government digital leaders including SOCITM. The discussion explored the implications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on local government, following the UK's global summit on AI safety. According to the MJ, participants highlighted that AI is not a distant concept but a rapidly growing reality citing examples of citizens already applying the technology to challenge parking fines. The potential impact extends to various areas, including Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) appeals, requiring local authorities to take a proactive approach to prevent overwhelming responses from residents. 

The roundtable emphasized that AI introduces not only technological shifts but also a fundamental rethink of processes, requiring a transformation in how local government operates.

Ethics also emerged as a central theme, with Socitm underscoring that AI is a leadership and governance issue, not merely a technological challenge. The discussion emphasized the importance of embedding ethics into public sector AI systems early on and providing comprehensive ethics training for all staff dealing with data, particularly frontline workers handling sensitive information. Concerns were raised about data security and cybersecurity risks, urging a cautious but informed approach to AI adoption. The roundtable also addressed the potential impact on employment, with one participant highlighting the need for skills adaptation, assuring employability even as job roles may evolve due to AI integration. 

From AI to Agile, in response to an overwhelming demand, the Digital and Agile for Local Government course, generously funded by the DLUHC Local Digital team, has garnered substantial attention. The course, designed to furnish officers with a foundational understanding of Agile methodologies in digital projects, is proving to be a transformative experience for participants. Recent testimonials attest to a “paradigm shift” in work methodologies, with participants expressing profound appreciation for the course's impact on their professional approaches to digital. The surge in interest has resulted in courses becoming unavailable almost overnight. Prospective participants are encouraged to register promptly for future iterations, underscoring the palpable demand for agile training which is emblematic of a growing recognition for such practices as being valuable outside of software engineering. As a software craftsmanship company, we understand that, much like agile, the craft mindset approach is universally applicable and profits from cross-pollination. 

As a quick plug for a cross-pollination event happening on the evening of the 29th of November, we’ll be hosting product, engineering and leadership professionals including GDS' David Heath, Product Leadership and Coaching Expert, Sarah Tims, Lion & Mason's Andy Curry as well as Codurance Co-Founder Mashooq Badar and Product guru Rachel Lyons. You can find out more in the podcast notes. 

Now over to healthcare and late last month the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) unveiled its AI-Airlock, a regulatory sandbox designed to to stimulate the landscape for AI developers in healthcare. Positioned as a regulator-monitored virtual space, the AI-Airlock offers a collaborative platform to address the challenges associated with traditional trial methods, ensuring that advanced technologies can be tested robustly. 

The ambitious collaboration involving government, regulators, industry, the NHS, and academia positions will permit controlled usage of advanced AI technology in NHS settings, subject to stringent safety measures. 

Dr. Paul Campbell, MHRA Head of Software and AI, emphasizes the need for safe AI deployment without stifling innovation, characterizing the AI-Airlock as an instrumental space for manufacturers to collaborate, learn, and navigate the complexities of AI-driven medical devices. The MHRA's visionary endeavour anticipates launch readiness by April 2024.

And finally, The NHS is expanding the application of its research platform, OpenSAFELY, beyond its pivotal role in the roll-out of Covid-19 treatments, aiming to catalyze breakthroughs for other major diseases. In collaboration with GPs and academic researchers, the NHS plans to utilize the platform to securely analyze GP system data, facilitating the identification of new treatments for conditions like cancer, diabetes, and asthma. OpenSAFELY, which played a critical role during the pandemic, will continue to ensure the confidentiality and security of patient data while enabling researchers to glean insights into medicines, treatments, and patient outcomes. The expansion aligns with the government's Data Saves Lives strategy, contributing to improved health and care outcomes through data-driven research. The platform will be open to new research applicants in 2024, following careful testing to identify its suitability for research beyond Covid-19. The move underscores the NHS's commitment to leveraging patient data responsibly to drive life-saving treatment advancements for a spectrum of health conditions.

That’s a wrap for episode three of the public sector technology roundup podcast. If you’ve enjoyed the podcast let me know by getting in touch via the contact details in the show notes. As we develop the podcast I’m looking forward to interviewing those pushing the boundaries of technology adoption and development across the public sector so if you’d like to feature, I’d like to hear from you! Until next time.