UK digital functions rewired with pledge to ‘overhaul the experience of interacting with the government’

By on 10/07/2024 | Updated on 10/07/2024
Prime minister Keir Starmer at first Labour government cabinet meeting
Prime minister Keir Starmer at first Labour government cabinet meeting after the 2024 general election. Photo: No.10 Downing Street Flickr

The new UK government has made a series of changes to the structure of Whitehall, headlined by changes to the key digital and data agencies which are intended to help transform public services through better use of science and technology.

Ministers have announced that the government’s three central digital agencies – the Government Digital Service (GDS), the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) and the Incubator for AI (i.AI) – will move from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT).

Other changes to government announced in the early days of prime minister Keir Starmer’s government include the creation of cross-government boards focused on implementing its five missions.

The expansion of DSIT aims to enable it to meet the mission of “transforming public services and fuelling economic growth through science and technology” which was set out by new science secretary Peter Kyle.

“Britain will not fully benefit from the social and economic potential of science and technology without government leading by example. So, DSIT is to become the centre for digital expertise and delivery in government, improving how the government and public services interact with citizens,” he said.

“We will act as a leader and partner across government, with industry and the research communities, to boost Britain’s economic performance and power up our public services to improve the lives and life chances of people through the application of science and technology.”

Creating a digital centre of government

According to the announcement of the changes, the expanded department will “drive forward the digital changes needed to overhaul the British public’s experience of interacting with the government”, with a focus on making government more personalised, convenient and timesaving.

Initiatives highlighted include the development of a single login to make it easier for people to quickly access the government services they need, and to improve data sharing across the public sector.

The UK government is developing a One Login system to allow users to create a government account to access services online. It is already being used by 30 government services and more than 3.8 million people have so far proven their identity through the system, according to a parliamentary answer in March from then Conservative government minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe.

DSIT will also work closely with central government departments the Cabinet Office and the Treasury,“to maximise the potential of digital, data and technology to deliver for the British public”.

Bringing together public service leaders within 100 days of the new government, Public Service Data Live will explore the opportunities and possibilities of digital and data reform across government – from using data to provide world-class government services to improving how government uses data to make better decisions. Find our more and register for the event on 19 September in London here.

Creating a strong central unit for digital government was one of the recommendations of Global Government Forum’s Digital Leaders Study 2023. The study, which looked at how to drive digital transformation in government, highlighted that “we haven’t seen any governments making good progress on digital without having established an influential and effective central digital unit”. A survey of digital government experts found that “increased resources and capabilities for the digital centre of government” was their top reform priority in a digital strategy. Respondents cited shortages of central leadership and capacity as their greatest challenges.

The research also found that every central digital team needs the ability to apply both mandates and incentives. “In general, you’ll get a better result with the velvet glove; but if it contains an iron fist, you’re likely to find departments much more willing to embrace the power of digital,” the study – which you can read in full here – concluded.

GDS gets new leadership – and a department gets a new name

At the same time as the move to the new department, the Government Digital Service’s new leadership has been confirmed.

Christine Bellamy, formerly the director of the government’s GOV.UK website project, has been named chief executive of GDS, taking over from Tom Read who left the position last month.

Bellamy said she was “honoured to have the opportunity to lead GDS and our mission to design and deliver the user experience of digital government”.

She added: “Millions of people use our products every week, and we remain committed to working across government and the wider public sector to deliver joined-up, proactive, secure digital services that are better for users and cheaper for the taxpayer.”

Elsewhere, the government has also renamed the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, reverting to its former title of Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Angela Rayner, who as well as leading the department is the new deputy prime minister, said that removing the phrase “levelling up” – which reflected a pledge from the previous Conservative administration to better share economic development across the UK – showed the need to “fix the fundamentals to deliver for the British people”.

She added: “No more gimmicks and slogans, but the hard yards of governing in the national interest. The department I lead will be the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.”

Watch on Friday: How government works: demystifying the structures and responsibilities in Whitehall, Westminster and beyond

Mission boards created to lead on Labour priorities

Other changes have also been announced in the first few days of the new Labour-led government.

At the first meeting of the new cabinet, Starmer outlined how government would deliver the five missions set out in his party’s manifesto:

  1. Kickstart economic growth to secure the highest sustained growth in the G7.
  2. Make Britain a clean energy superpower to cut bills, create jobs and deliver zero-carbon electricity by 2030, accelerating to net zero.
  3. Take back our streets by halving serious violent crime and raising confidence in the police and criminal justice system to its highest levels.
  4. Break down barriers to opportunity by reforming childcare and education systems to ensure there is no class ceiling on the ambitions of young people in Britain.
  5. Build an NHS fit for the future that is there when people need it, with fewer lives lost to the biggest killers.

Each mission will be led by the cabinet minister with central responsibility for the policy area, while a mission delivery unit has been established in the Cabinet Office to “remove any barriers to progress”, according to the government.

At a press conference on Saturday, Starmer also said that mission delivery boards would be formed “to drive through the change that we need”. He will chair these boards as prime minister “to make clear to everyone that they are a priority in government”.

Starmer also issued a message to the UK government’s civil servants. He highlighted that his time as director of public prosecutions – a permanent secretary-level post in government overseeing criminal prosecutions in England and Wales, which he held from 2008 to 2013 – showed how hard civil servants work.

The work of officials would be vital to creating “a mission-driven government with a real sense of purpose”, he said. “That’s not just a slogan. It’s about setting clear long-term objectives that drive our decision making… and help us to prioritise our work.”

It will require a different way of working in government, he told officials.

“One of openness, of collaboration and transparency in everything we do. But from the get go I want you to know that you have my confidence, my support and, importantly, my respect.

“Together, as one team, we can deliver our mission of national renewal and change.”

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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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