PublicTechnology’s biggest stories of the year
A reminder of the shocks, scandals and success stories that shaped the world of government technology in 2022
Credit image above: Steve Buissinne/Pixabay Images below: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0
It is standard practice to start a piece like this by justifying its existence. This typically takes the form of a brief but bombastic reminder for any readers who might have forgotten how and why this has been a year unlike any other – or words to that effect.
Well, is such a reminder really necessary here?
Or even practical, for that matter: it would be easy to use the entire wordcount recapping every news item that, in another year, would have dominated front pages for months, but barely warrants a mention in the 2022 year-end round-up.
So, let’s just briefly acknowledge that last January was, one monarch, two prime ministers, and about six inflation points ago and a lot – a lot – else has happened in between.
Technology and data was central to much of this – if for no other reason than because it is central to much of life in 2022. Digital platforms are now often both the medium and the message, for public services and the lives of the private citizens they support.
Throughout the year our reporting has tried to reflect this, while also recognising that the technology itself is rarely, if ever, the story.
It is, though, the means by which most of our stories are now told. Below are a few that are worth remembering.
Digital, data and Covid
For many people – although not, we should remember, for many others – the locked-down depths of the coronavirus crisis have increasingly come to resemble a bad dream.
But, even as the country’s high streets fill up with a volume of shoppers and revellers indistinguishable from the pre-pandemic age, it is really not that long ago Covid remained the dominant factor of daily life.
With impressive disregard for recency bias, our biggest story of the year – certainly by readership – played out during 2022’s earliest weeks.
Our most-read story of the year was an investigation conducted in the final days of 2021 that uncovered that many an ever-growing volume of PCR tests (remember those?) had begun to record ‘void’ results. On top of this, some test users were wrongly advised that their test had come back void.
By this stage, the vaccine rollout had also administered tens of millions of jabs and our reporting on the NHS Covid Pass was also closely watched by many – particularly as it expanded to younger age groups, with 12- to 15-year-olds able to obtain the digital documents for the first time just in time for February’s half-term holidays.
Shortly afterward, the multimillion-pound contracts covering the delivery of the NHS Covid-19 contact-tracing app were extended to the end of 2022.
Will the story of technology and coronavirus end there?
HM Revenue and Customs is not alone in pursuing digital transformation – nor in the difficulties and opportunities it faces in doing so.
But, in addition to being one of government’s largest departments and probably its furthest-reaching, its technology story is emblematic.
Via its £10bn-plus Aspire engagement, the department was – for good and for ill – a poster child for the Whitehall tech outsourcing wave of the early 21st century. The actions it has taken since to broaden and diversify its supplier base represent something of a bellwether for similar work taking place across government.
The good news is that, in an exclusive interview published in March, chief digital and information officer Daljit Rehal told PublicTechnology “HMRC is on track to break up our largest IT contracts – and create the organisation we need for the future”.
His comments came shortly after it was announced that, by March 2023, the department is to close down its in-house IT provider RCDTS Ltd: a government-owned company created in 2015 to help smooth the move away from Aspire.
The department indicated that it wishes to take “more control of IT strategy and estate”, and is now engaged in confirming alternative arrangements for the £85m of IT services previously provided each year by the RCDTS. This includes a recent potential £50m contract with BT to take over a range of netwok support services, and take on RCDTS employees.
All the while, work has continued to ensure the smooth – but urgent – exit from three Fujitsu-run datacentres, deliver a three-year £200m project to improve data-protection measures, and manage the risk posed by legacy tech.
Which is to say nothing of the day job of transforming and digitising the UK’s tax system. Another busy year lies ahead.
‘Wall of silence surrounds plan for nationwide collection of citizens’ internet records’
Unlike the other entries on this list, this story is currently a one-off.
But, in addition to being high on our list of most-read pieces of 2022, it has the potential to resonate longer and wider than anything else we wrote this year – despite the fact that there were, essentially, no words for us to write.
That is because the Home Office, the National Crime Agency and the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office did not provide any comment or information for this story, nor did any of the UK’s 16 leading broadband providers or a body that represents them.
The silence was at least consistent, given that the plans to create a national service allowing authorities search for and obtain citizens’ internet records as stored by their communications providers was not announced by any public authority – before or since we ran our story.
The plans – which represent perhaps the most far-reaching programme of state surveillance of any major democratic nation – had been mooted for a few years, with reports in 2021 that an initial trial had taken place. The success and expansion of this trial was only confirmed via procurement documents, seen by PublicTechnology.
Little else has been seen since but, as government keeps an ever-closer eye on its citizens, it should expect that such scrutiny is increasingly reciprocated.
Borders and immigration – backlogs and issues
It was a big story for our readers, but in the context of all that the Home Office has on its plate, making secretive plans to tap into the internet records of the public was barely an amuse bouche.
The department’s work to reform the UK borders and the national immigration system continued to make use – not always effectively – of data and technology.
It began the year with the signing of £17m deal with tech giant IBM for the delivery of ongoing support and functionality upgrades for the core IT system underpinning the work of the Border Force – and a £70m contract with Capgemini for the long-term support and transformation of its the department’s own datacentre infrastructure.
What has not transformed thus far are the struggles the department continues to face in dealing with immigration casework, and the digital systems and data that underpins it.
Against the backdrop of a waiting list of asylum applications that had risen sevenfold in the past decade – and doubled in the last 24 months, to 85,000 – in March we reported that ministers could not say how many asylum interviews took place in 2021, nor would the department update PublicTechnology on the rollout of the new Atlas IT system.
The following month we reported that there were about 8,000 Turkish nationals in the UK who, in many cases, have lived in the UK for many years – but had been kept waiting for a year or more for the Home Office to rubber stamp their visa extension. This left them unable to travel back outside the country – even for a bereavement or other emergency – and struggling to prove their right to live and work in this country.
The backlog of immigration casework has increased further still since then – but prime minister Rishi Sunak recently vowed to clear all asylum cases by the end of 2023. He will be hoping – committed PublicTechnology reader that he surely is – that the department charged with doing so features less often in our reporting in the next 12 months.
Job cuts and skills
Former PM Boris Johnson’s plan to cut 91,000 jobs across the civil service may since have been rethought, but it reverberated across every corner of government throughout the year – in ways big and small.
The plan itself, via the unlikely high-tech evangelist of Jacob Rees-Mogg, relied on the importance automation tools and other forms of technology in enabling the civil service to work smarter.
But, as part of the hiring freeze put in place to support the job cuts, government’s Fast Stream scheme was suspended – prompting warnings that this would deprive departments of the kind of skills needed to make the most of digital and data. Skills that, according to senior officials, are now required by leaders throughout government – regardless of discipline.
On the other hand, expert onlookers have suggested that the money saved via job cuts – even if they don’t stretch to 91,000 – should be invested in offering better pay to key hires in the fields of digital and data, and other areas where skills are in high demand.
Bigger salary packets could make a key difference in filling DDaT roles that, according to Whitehall’s internal recruitment watchdog, are growing in number, but are among the hardest positions for departments to staff.
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