21 July 2021

Creating a digital state: from a one-stop shop to a no-stop shop

By Kirsty Innes & Philip Salter

While bringing much of the world to a near-standstill, the pandemic sped up the need for technological solutions to deal with its consequences. Governments were just as affected as businesses, with countries around the world – many for the first time – forced to deliver education online, offer medical appointments virtually, switch to online courts, or simply embrace technology to ensure the day-to-day business of parliamentary democracy didn’t grind to a halt.

When it comes to govtech (digital technology to improve public services), the UK has a solid track record of innovation. The much-emulated Government Digital Service (GDS) delivered the ground-breaking single government website Gov.UK – before losing its way. The current government also has grand ambitions, at least on paper, pledging in its 2019 manifesto to improve the use of data, and more recently committing to “One Login For Government”, a single sign-on for digitally enabled services, that is “simple and safe to use, and available to everyone.”

A one-stop-shop for all government services would certainly be an upgrade to the status quo. According to GDS there are currently more than 100 different places where citizens have to log in to use government services, using various means from Government Gateway for tax and benefits, NHS Login for health, a separate username and password for benefits claimed via the Department for Work and Pensions, and so on. It stands in stark contrast to Estonia, where citizens can easily prove their identity – even digitally, without a physical ID card – in their interactions with the state. Data in Estonia is seamlessly shared between government departments, saving over 1345 years of working time for Estonians last year. Nearly all public services are available digitally, with tax forms even pre-filled with data the government already holds so that they can be filed in a matter of minutes.

Advanced digital states aren’t resting on their laurels, however. In education, pedagogy will increasingly be tailored to individual students based on their performance and preferences, so that no child is left permanently behind (or bored). In healthcare, genetic information is being used in conjunction with digital records so that doctors can deliver bespoke personal medicine. And anyone who becomes unemployed is automatically being targeted with jobs based on their skills and experience, or offered training based on the potential job opportunities in their local area.

On Australia’s Gold Coast, analytics have been used to predict hospital emergency admissions with an accuracy of up to 93%. As well as ensuring a better service, this saves money by reducing overtime payments. Singapore meanwhile is using artificial intelligence for predictive healthcare, automating the time-consuming process of characterising a thyroid lump.

In the US, the Chicago Department of Health uses analytics teams to predict food store safety violations. Las Vegas’s health department turns to advanced AI technologies in deciding where to deploy its health inspectors, analysing Twitter for posts indicating food poisoning. And in Indonesia, tweets have been used by the startup PetaJakarta and the government to crowdsource details on flooding and focus rescue efforts.

In Finland, the AuroraAI programme will pre-identify life events to support children after compulsory education and recommend them extra courses for upskilling and improving their employment prospects. And Singapore is using data to predict the type of skills the public sector will need in the future, helping to identify future talent as well as investigating why some people leave the public sector and what might induce them to stay.

Moving Towards Predictive Services

This is just the tip of the iceberg, with data being used in areas as diverse as crime, tourism, and the choice of library books, to deploy governments’ limited resources more efficiently and target individuals based on their specific needs.

One thread running through many of these examples is the move towards predictive (sometimes called proactive or anticipatory) services, where citizens are automatically offered services rather than being expected to apply for them. The future of the digital state isn’t just a one-stop shop, it’s a no-stop shop.

The potential for proactive services extends into every aspect of the relationship between the state and the individual.

Imagine you’ve booked a trip abroad but your passport needs renewing because it expires in less than six months. The purchase of the flight could set off a series of automated actions: the Passport Office would pre-fill all the required information, simply sending a prompt for you to take a photo of yourself on your phone (with an AI tool on hand to check that it meets the criteria before you submit it); the visa appointment or process would be automated, with a message to your phone offering you appointment times in coordination with the embassy (and your calendar, if you choose to share it).

So how does the UK get to a one-stop-shop, let alone a no-stop-shop? First, we need everyone to have a digital identity. Without unique identifiers, data can’t follow us as users. This doesn’t need to be a physical ID card. It could be completely digital, with the experience feeling no different to logging into online banking.

This would be more secure than the current system in which data sits across numerous databases, with varying degrees of security, and which can be accessed by people without any record of the fact (in advanced digital states you can see precisely who has accessed your data and why).

While the big idea is to share data to make life for everyone easier, opt-outs could be built in for those who value privacy above all else. The UK already has a data ethics framework to deal with some of these issues, but it should be noted that advanced digital states offer more privacy and security than the status quo. The choice isn’t between having a digital identity or not. Instead it’s between the current situation of having dozens of identities, digital or otherwise, all of which contain slightly different sets of information about you; or having a system where you can immediately prove specific attributes or facts about yourself. This would mean that each time you wanted to inform a government department about your age or income, you would not have to share all your information with that department all over again. Government work to develop GOV.UK accounts needs to be accompanied by clear communications and radical transparency about the current system, as well as the aims and operation of the new one.

We also need government departments to share data with each other. This is harder than it sounds, and something all digital states have struggled with. In addition to clear principles and best practice around data governance (an area where the Open Data Institute has delivered faster progress than central government initiatives such as the National Data Strategy), strong and determined political leadership is required. Firm commitments like mandating that e-services need to be delivered by a set date can help. This needs to be connected to the right skills and experience: departmental leaders need to gain the sort of product owner mindset more familiar to tech companies, and it would pay dividends to employ (and pay competitively for) proven product managers from the private sector.

As a very first step, adopting Estonia’s once-only principle would help concentrate minds. It would ensure that citizens, institutions, and companies only have to provide certain standard information to the authorities and administrations once. The UK is playing catch up – the EU already plans to incorporate this principle by 2023.

As a founding member of the Digital 5 (D5), which has now grown to 10, the UK is nominally one of the world’s Digital Nations. Now is the time to turn our big ambitions into reality.

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Philip Salter is founder of The Entrepreneurs Network. Kirsty Innes is Head of the Digital Government Unit at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.