TechWatch editor Emily McDaid recently spoke to Russell Sloan, the director of digital services for Kainos, about the role of data when it comes to government.
The UK government is undertaking a digital transformation, helped in part by the formation of the Government Digital Service (GDS) almost seven years ago. Data and transactional services were traditionally held on old technology such as mainframes – and the Conservative-led government has been keen to change that.
“Kainos was involved in the early days,” said Russell Sloan, director of digital services at the company. “GDS cited 25 citizen-facing projects they wanted to make a difference with.
“Registering to vote digitally was number one on the list. The Cabinet Office oversaw that project directly.”
As Kainos’ blog details, 30m voter applications have been received digitally in the past six years. Given that the UK has 65.6m citizens, that’s almost half the population.
Furthermore, data showed that 55pc of the applications have come from citizens under 35 years of age.
Sloan said: “It’s surprising that we haven’t followed suit in NI [Northern Ireland] – I’d love to see online voter registration here.”
Is that because of devolved government?
“Yes, GDS and the Cabinet Office have no remit in NI. While there are a lot of benefits to devolved government and local decision-making, it potentially prohibits digital services being replicated across all regions. However, I am aware that NI Digital Transformation Service liaises closely with GDS, sharing good practice and creating efficiencies where possible,” said Sloan.
Kainos posted interim results in 2017 that indicated 52pc of its revenue was attributed to government services, with 36pc commercial and 12pc healthcare.
Are there other aspects of government services that Kainos delivers, beyond voter registration?
“We completed an MOT [Ministry of Transport] transformation project, bringing 22,000 garages in England and Wales into the same digital system,” Sloan said.
What did that entail?
“A channel shift into the cloud,” said Sloan. “The previous system was mainframe-based, costing the taxpayer over £30m a year. We re-engineered the new digital MOT testing service, and it was the first government transactional service to transition onto Amazon Web Services (AWS).
“Additionally, we worked with the DVLA out of Swansea to enable the paper counterpart of the driving licence to be removed.
“With the Home Office, we helped to streamline back-office processing of passport applications. There were huge efficiencies in removing paper from that process.”
Can you point to specific savings from these digital transformations?
The new MOT testing service is expected to save the DVSA £100m over the next 10 years, but I believe this is a conservative number.
Sloan said: “The government will start to see the true value of these transformation projects when they start to use the data that’s now available. For instance, with the MOT project, we use Google Analytics and metrics in the system, and continue to speak to real users like mechanics, and feed that data back into future use cases, so they know the impact of any spend.”
Could we replace our government completely with algorithms?
“As you look toward the future, it’s inevitable that machine learning will play a significant role in public services. I can’t see it replacing government completely, but can it be augmented and supported by it? Yes, definitely,” said Sloan.
Is our democracy broken?
“In general, our democracy isn’t broken,” he said. “With Brexit, the public voted a particular way to leave the EU and it’s being pushed through now. That’s a good example of democracy working.”
Will we see voting over a mobile phone in our lifetime?
“Yes, I think so.”
“We’re a few parliaments away from that. We’d expect to see that within the next 10 to 20 years.”
Is the underlying tech already here, to make that happen?
Sloan concluded: “Technology is normally the easier part. Changing hearts and minds is more difficult. You can already access very sensitive info over your phone, such as your bank account. Why not voting?”
By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch
A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch
Whitehall Road, London, UK, home to government buildings such as the Cabinet Office. Image: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock