I recently spoke to Russell Sloan, the director of digital services for Kainos.
The UK government is undertaking a digital transformation, helped in part by the formation of Government Digital Services (GDS) six years ago. Data and transactional services were traditionally held on old technology like mainframes – and the Conservative-led government has been keen to change that.
“Kainos was involved in the early days,” said Russell. “GDS cited 25 citizen-facing projects they wanted to make a difference with.”
Russell said, “Registering to vote digitally was number one on the list. The Cabinet Office oversaw that project directly.”
As Kainos’ blog details, 30 million voter applications have been received digitally in the past six years. Given that the UK has 65.6 million citizens, that’s almost half the population.
Furthermore, data showed that 55% of the applications have come from citizens under 35 years of age.
Russell said, “It’s surprising that we haven’t followed suit in NI – I’d love to see online voter registration here.”
Is that because of devolved government?
“Yes, GDS and the cabinet office have no remit in NI. While there are a lot of benefits to devolved government and local decision-making, it potentially prohibits Digital services being replicated across all regions. However, I am aware that NI Digital Transformation Services liaise closely with GDS, sharing good practice and creating efficiencies where possible.”
Kainos posted interim results this year that indicated 52% of its revenue was attributed to government services, with 36% commercial and 12% healthcare.
Are there other aspects of government services Kainos delivers, beyond voter registration?
“We completed an MOT transformation project, bringing 22,000 garages in England and Wales into the same digital system,” he said.
What did that entail?
“A channel shift into the cloud,” said Russell. “The previous system was mainframe-based, costing the taxpayer over £30m a year. We re-engineered the new digital MOT testing service, and it was the first government transactional service to transition onto Amazon Web Services (AWS).”
“Additionally we worked with the DVLA out of Swansea to enable the paper counterpart of the driving license to be removed.”
He continued, “With the Home Office, we helped to streamline back-office processing of passport applications. There were huge efficiencies in removing paper from that process.”
Can you point to specific savings from these digital transformations?
The new MOT testing service is expected to save the DVSA £100 million over the next ten years, but I believe this is a conservative number.
He said, “The government will start to see the true value of these transformation projects when they start to use the data that’s now available. For instance with the MOT project, we use Google Analytics and metrics in the system, and continue to speak to real users like mechanics and feed that data back into future use cases, so they know the impact of any spend.”
Could we replace our government completely with algorithms?
Russell said, “As you look toward the future it’s inevitable that machine learning will play a significant role in public services. I can’t see it replacing government completely but can it be augmented and supported by it – yes definitely.”
Is our democracy broken?
“In general our democracy isn’t broken,” Russell said. “With Brexit, the public voted a particular way to leave the EU and it’s being pushed through now. That’s a good example of democracy working.”
In our lifetimes will we see voting over a mobile phone?
“Yes I think so.”
Russell said, “We’re a few parliaments away from that. We’d expect to see that within the next 10 - 20 years.”
Is the underlying tech already here, to make that happen?
He said, “Technology is normally the easier part. Changing hearts and minds is more difficult. You can already access very sensitive info over your phone, such as your bank account. Why not voting?”