UK Home Office launches new digital strategy

By on 15/07/2021
Digital transformation: the UK Home Office has launched a new strategy that aims to build on its work digitalising borders. Credit: Home Office/Wikimedia

The Home Office is to establish a more “flexible and collective” approach to digital transformation – including consolidating its technology products and becoming more data-driven – in a three-year strategy that marks a major departure for the UK government department.

Launched earlier this week by Simon Bourne, the Home Office’s chief digital, data and technology officer, the strategy is built around six principles: converging technology; creating shared technology; being product-centric over programme-centric; becoming data-driven; delivering effectively at scale; and embracing innovation.

“It sets out our ambitions for developing better digital products, platforms and services, and for transforming how we manage data. This will help us to become more efficient and ensure we meet the needs of our users,” the strategy says.  

Consolidating tech

The strategy will see the Home Office’s 3,800-strong Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) division develop new technology services internally after “radically transforming” its relationship with outside suppliers. “We’ve taken back control of the design, build and operational aspects of technology services, wherever appropriate,” the document notes.

“In many cases, such changes have lowered our costs, increased our use of niche suppliers with deep subject matter expertise, reduced our technical risk and enabled us to be more agile and responsive to evolving business needs,” it adds.

The UK Home Office has wide-ranging responsibilities including immigration, crime, counter-terrorism, drugs policy and police. Its systems currently support over three million visa applications a year and 140 million police checks. But many of these systems are based on legacy technology which cannot integrate with other products and is expensive to maintain.

The department says it will champion the use of more accessible technology – such as open source and the cloud – and embed standards to ensure its products can easily be consolidated, scaled and maintained. This, over time, will rationalise its digital estate.

Significantly, the Home Office says it will also shift its development focus to outcomes rather than traditional outputs in an attempt to create products around user needs that can be continuously upgraded and developed.

“By continuing to invest in products once they have gone live, we will ensure they continue to meet business objectives and user needs as they evolve. This will help us reduce the need for large-scale rework and expensive replacement programmes,” the strategy says.

The DDaT will also compile a register to document all of the department’s technology and products. This, it says, will support its re-use, help to avoid any duplication and allow it to look for any convergence opportunities at the start of projects. Teams will also be instructed to design with “reuse in mind” so any shared components can be part of a departmental “toolkit”.

Indeed, where there is a service that is likely to be needed by multiple parts of the department, this will be built as a shared technology product. It is currently working on three examples, including a form-building and hosting product, and an identity and access management system to support professionals who join, move within and leave the Home Office. The department acknowledges that this is a major shift from its previous approach, and it will need to support teams to think beyond “immediate needs”.

Data-driven

The strategy also focuses on becoming more data-driven. Measures under this strand include for all new systems to have “clearly defined API strategies” to ensure the simple transfer of data. This will be underpinned by “robust governance structures”, the document notes.

The Home Office also wants to build “data stores” for each of its core areas. “These will be our authoritative sources of common data,” it says, and there will improved collaboration with other government organisations.

The strategy is a major shift for the Home Office: like most other UK departments, it has historically been heavily driven by cost and time outputs and tended toward more bespoke technology development. These projects were often marred by poor outcomes and cost over runs.

The new strategy cements an approach the DDaT team has been using internally since 2019, according to Bourne. The results can already be seen in examples such as the EU settlement scheme and the implementation of a points-based immigration system, he notes.

But it has not been without its problems. The Home Office has been attempting to digitise borders and replace its legacy systems since 2003. In December last year, the National Audit Office reported that the project had overrun by £173m (US$240m) and still wasn’t complete. It acknowledged the DDaT’s “reset” in 2019 but warned that it faced significant risks in delivering the project by 2022.

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