David Mytton is the CEO at UK IT systems management company, Server Density.
Formed in April 2011, the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service (GDS) is responsible for the provision of government digital services. Starting with every department running its own systems, GDS has gradually taken over control of many key public digital services, from searching Companies House databases to tax returns, all delivered via .gov.uk.
This is all part of the “government as a platform” strategy whereby offering core services from a centralised provider introduces the economies of scale that can be found in big technology platforms like Amazon, Google and Twitter. This has many benefits including a consistent user experience (on both desktop and mobile, which is increasingly how users access public services) and ensuring that security and data privacy best practices are robustly applied. Improvements and regular iterations can also be informed by usage data available to the teams building the services as opposed to being siloed inside departments or third party consulting firms.
A modern approach to IT in the private sector typically means that businesses no longer run their own infrastructure, instead handing off what the Chief Technology Officer of Amazon calls “undifferentiated heavy lifting”. Why would you want to run your own email system or build your own computer hardware with all the associated costs of maintenance (and keeping up with innovation) when public cloud providers like Amazon, Google and Microsoft can do it all for you, better than you could ever manage yourself? With advances in the portfolio of products offered by the big three cloud providers, there are no longer any logical reasons why a business would want to do it themselves. The same should apply to government, and indeed this is what the Cloud First Policy states.
The GDS model of service delivery is regularly held up as an example of how central government IT should be run. GDS strategy states that this doesn’t necessarily mean building everything in-house but it does mean that core government services are often delivered in that way. Indeed, GDS services themselves sit on top of public cloud infrastructure, use agile development methodologies and deploy innovative technology, buying in services where it makes sense.
Cyber security is one of the biggest challenges facing public sector IT. It requires massive investment in multiple layers of protection at many levels including infrastructure, system design and human operations. One of the advantages of using one of the big three cloud providers is the level of investment they make in security. From building custom hardware to employing hundreds of people dedicated to security, few are able to invest more. This is another big reason to avoid running your own core systems.
In my mind, there are few reasons why any area of central government should be building and running their own IT systems. Everything should be handled by GDS where IT projects can be run efficiently and with best practices in mind. It’s the best of outsourcing IT from the department (who have no hope of building the same degree of expertise) whilst still retaining skills and knowledge within government.
Put into practice, that means things like email and file storage should be purchased from one of the major cloud providers – following best practices configuration guidelines from the National Cyber Security Centre. Email itself is not a secure method of communication so additional precautions such as end to end encryption would be needed where truly secure messages must be exchanged, but this would mitigate the risk of infrastructure level attacks such as denial of service attacks or unpatched security holes.
And of course, much of this can be applied to local government as well. The ability to provision services to meet local requirements is important, but what needs to be customised about email? Or file storage? Or even how council tax IT systems work? If you’ve ever used online services from multiple councils, you’ll remember their varying quality.
Local government budgets are precious and should be reserved for buying services which really make a difference to local residents. I would be interested in exploring the creation of a GDS managed system for council tax that includes all the best practices (especially security) of being built on top of a modern government platform at the same time as ensuring local needs are met.
Other local government services could follow. Consistency of user experience, easy access across multiple devices, and good data security should not just be limited to central government IT.