The story of the UK Digital Academy, why good decisions follow good data, and more

By on 22/05/2024 | Updated on 22/05/2024
Global Government Forum travelled to Leeds for a reunion of the UK government's Digital Academy

Welcome to this month’s Digital and Data Monitor newsletter. This month, we share exclusive insight on the development – and demise – of the UK government’s Digital Academy, as well as expert input on helping good decisions follow good data, and the latest developments in how governments are developing digital ID.

Thanks for reading. Please get in touch to share your thoughts and news on digital and data developments in government.

Richard Johnstone
Executive editor
Global Government Forum

In this month’s monitor:

The story of the UK Digital Academy

In a new and exclusive episode of Government Transformed, GGF’s executive editor Richard Johnstone and podcast producer Jack Aldane journeyed from London to Leeds to join a reunion of one of the UK government’s most innovative digital projects – the Digital Academy. 

What was it? The academy was initially set up in the Department for Work and Pensions, before transferring to the Government Digital Service. Its aim was to give people the skills to build public services that would close the gap between government bureaucracies and the kinds of services citizens had grown accustomed to in an online world. It officially closed in 2022. 

Meet you at the reunion: To mark 10 years since the academy was created, those who ran the academy – and those who went through it – met up to reminisce and think about what it means for digital transformation in government now.

Memories: Participants looked back over the academy’s lifespan, tracing its beginnings to the peak of its accomplishments, and the combination of factors that led to its eventual end. They discussed the impact the academy had, both on the way government viewed digital service delivery, as well as their own careers. 

Listen now: This podcast offers a timely example of the difference small groups of dynamic individuals can make to government services, given enough time and freedom to solve core problems. It also shows why digital technology leads to transformation only when people combine to form a mission-driven culture.

Why good decisions follow good data  

Governments are very good at collecting data, but often struggle to know what to do with it. This is especially true once pressure mounts to use the data they have to improve public service delivery.  
At a recent webinar, as part of the programme around the Public Service Data Live conference, Global Government Forum invited three speakers to discuss ways in which the UK government already uses data to develop better targeted and personalised services, and how this can be improved.

Collaboration: The session discussed how government can use data to improve services, in keeping with UK cabinet secretary Simon Case’s ambition to get analysts from across government collaborating on shared problems. 

Data and the COVID response: Dr Sarah Deeny, deputy director of national hazard assessment and analysis, All Hazards Intelligence, Data, Analytics and Surveillance Group at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said the pandemic had “really amped up the demand” for better data in health. In particular, it has proven vital to accurately forecast hospital admissions for a variety of diseases.

Multiple threats: She described how the pandemic had highlighted the complexity of decision-making. “[T]here’s multiple threats to the system, although thankfully, obviously not on the same scale as during the height of the pandemic,” Deeny said.

How can AI assist? The discussion highlighted the potential for data experts to pull together and analyse huge amounts of structured and unstructured data from a range of different sources, using technologies like AI to spot patterns and trends invisible to the naked eye. Caroline Payne, data and analytics director of public sector in Northern Europe at SAS, offered an example that she said has arisen from her efforts to help clients access data.
Synthetic replicas: She outlined the emerging potential of generative AI to find patterns in data within existing datasets, and turn these into synthetic replicas that can be interpreted more easily.  

“That’s a use case that we’re starting to see more and more interest in,” she said. 

AI ‘only as good as inputs’:Emma Hyland, head of data and military intelligence in the data and analysis team of the Illegal Migration Operations Command at the UK Home Office, agreed that AI has promising potential to aid decision-makers. However, she reminded the audience that good data remains the only real basis for good decision-making.

“It sounds really obvious to say this, but visualisations, dashboards, the opportunity of AI, all of that stuff… it’s only as good as the data feeding in.” 

A ‘whole system approach’ to better data: Hyland said that data is “a golden thread running throughout everything that we do”, and as such, there is a need for “a whole system approach” to improving it.

Read more: The full report from the Unlocking insight from data to support decision making webinar – held on 9 May – is available here [LINK].

This week’s webinar: How government can get social benefits payments right first time

Providing welfare payments and support to citizens is one of the key capabilities of government. The public sector needs a reliable, flexible and scalable way to make payment to individuals and companies.

The importance of this was highlighted during the Covid-19 crisis.

This session will bring together public servants to discuss how modern disbursement systems can be built so that they are robust to today’s pressures – and those of the future. It will also cover how modern welfare systems can be developed in a way that reduces fraud and error at source and provides people with the benefits they are entitled to – accurately and quickly.

Register here: How government can get social benefits payments right first time

Data Challenge serves as an engine of innovation for Canada’s public services

Canada’s Public Service Data Challenge addresses the barriers to innovation in government – our new feature takes a closer look at how the programme works in practice.

Meeting the data challenge:  The Data Challenge programme is operated by Statistics Canada, Natural Resources Canada and Global Government Forum, and in design, it mirrors a similar UK programme. After all, the keys to successful innovation are similar in democracies around the world, and the Data Challenge has just won a Government of Canada Digital Community Award 2024: the Large Organization Award for Outstanding Digital Leadership.

Agpal Chat: The aim of the project is to draw out great ideas from public servants, and push the best right through to implementation. Ahead of next week’s publication of the shortlisted projects, champions and judges explain the programme and give their tips for victory.

In April, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) launched Agpal Chat, the government’s first public-facing generative AI chatbot. “It’s about as easy to interact with as you could imagine,” says Jay Conte, an AAFC policy analyst. “To find any kind of government support, rather than trying to navigate tricky clickbox searches or clunky search fields, you can literally just ask the question in your own language.”

How it works: Users can quiz the chatbot on agricultural programmes and services at the federal, provincial and territorial levels, using either English or French, and it responds immediately with well-written, comprehensive answers and helpful links. “If you’re used to traditional Government of Canada customer service, you’re going to be pretty floored by what it’s able to do,” says Conte.

Why it works: In large organisations, senior leaders can often become distanced from the expertise and ideas of frontline staff, who themselves lack contact with people in other professions, roles and organisations. The Data Challenge addresses all these barriers to innovation and experimentation by creating space for all federal public servants to send in ideas on how government could make better use of data, and to volunteer as a team member.

Answering the call: In its first year of operation, Conte was among those who submitted ideas. He had long been frustrated with the quality of departments’ search functions, and was convinced that generative AI technologies could help solve the problem. “I knew that the potential was there,” he recalls. “The questions were going to be: could we figure it out from a technical standpoint? And could we get enough support from management to overcome some of the risks associated with the tools?” ‘No harm in trying,’ he thought, and put in an entry.

Innovation in action:In all, around 100 ideas were submitted in that first year. Read the article in full to hear about how the ideas were developed– and tips on how to win. And, read our examination of the UK’s Civil Service Data Challenge too.

Australian government passes Digital ID Bill

The Australian government is moving forward with plans to develop a national digital ID after the parliament passed legislation to implement the system.

The Digital ID Bill 2024 sets out the regulations for the expansion of the Australian Government Digital ID System and for providers and services to apply to join the government’s system.

Aims for ID: The government intends to develop an economy-wide Digital ID system, which will provide many benefits to Australians by improving privacy and security when interacting online, as well as helping join up government data.

Building up the system: Digital IDs are not new in the country, where there are more than 10.5 million accounts on myGovID. This provides users with access to more than 130 government services. There are also several private-sector accredited digital ID providers. The newly approved legislation provides the basis to expand the existing system for full use across national, state and territory governments – and ‘after no more than two years’, accredited private businesses will be able to apply to join.

Security and safeguards: The legislation embeds strong privacy and consumer safeguards, and establishes the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission as the Digital ID Regulator alongside the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, which will regulate the privacy aspects of Australia’s Digital ID System.

Australia’s ‘nationally coordinated approach’: The legislation came after the various cross-state jurisdictions agreed to develop a “nationally coordinated approach” to digital ID credentials in a bid to reform the country’s fragmented ecosystem. It is part of the government’s aim to provide what it called “a critical capability and… one of the ways the government is keeping Australians safe and responding to the increase in third party data breaches”.

Money matters: Total funding for the system is around AUS$782m (US$521m), with money allocated to both developing core service functions such as a face biometrics portal, as well as establishing a credential protection register as part of anti-fraud and cybersecurity measures.

Make online transactions easier and safer: Settiing out the thinking behind the digital ID last year, Katy Gallagher, Australia’s minister for finance, said the provisions of the bill aimed to make all online transactions easier and safer for Australians. She said improving online safety was a priority for the government, and that there would be strong independent oversight of digital ID.

Elsewhere: Other countries are currently implementing digital ID programmes. The government of Indonesia has embarked on a digital transformation programme, with digital identity and cloud data storage among the areas of focus, while the Malaysian government is set to make its digital ID service available to the public later this year.

Mythbusting: However, some countries have struggled with implementing digital ID systems. The UK government published a myth-busing article over its plans to develop digital identity verification for online services to address “several misconceptions” about the One Login programme. The Government of Canada is also examining the potential of digital credentials to better join up services.

Training: how to get the AI and digital skills you need

Global Government Forum’s expert government training team create and deliver training programmes for governments all over the world. Some key upcoming courses are:

How Artificial Intelligence Can Empower the Civil Service
Thursday 30 May

This interactive workshop is designed to introduce Civil Service professionals to the world of AI. The seminar will cover fundamental concepts of AI, its applications in the public sector, ethical considerations, and practical tools. It aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of AI, especially for those new to the field, and explore its potential in enhancing government services.

Deploying AI in the Civil Service
Wednesday 19 June

This seminar is designed to provide you with a full understanding of how to go about using and deploying AI in civil service departments and organisations. It starts with the fundamental questions, and moves into how to take account of practical considerations in implementing AI strategies and operations, from legal frameworks and ensuring organisational compliance, through to the analysis of case studies and how these lessons can be applied in your own context, and onto what the future holds and how you can be prepared as civil servants to realise the benefits that AI can bring most fully.

Sign up: The Global Government Forum newsletter provides the latest news, interviews and features on AI, data, workforce, and sustainability in government.

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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