Is the UK still a digital powerhouse?

Published on August 05, 2021

For many years, “digital government” was the punchline to a joke that wasn’t really funny. People who were trying to deal with government departments used their phones or sent letters rather than experience the trouble of going online. But as technology progressed, governments started using different tools to make the interaction faster, more efficient, and intuitive.

The UK Government has been one of the most digitally advanced in the world. They’ve developed and opened its code, allowing other governments to replicate it as well. This portal is based on the principle “build once and reuse,” which has become one of the world’s most popular concepts for service provision. The Government Digital Service (GDS) has been one of the leaders in digital transformation, and local authorities have also expanded digitally with various initiatives, from chatbots to AI and responsive web chats. 

Making revolution, not evolution

The Government Digital Service (GDS) was established in response to Martha Lane Fox’s report, ‘Directgov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution. It became the central team in the Cabinet Office in control of the overall user experience across all digital channels. Some of the responsibilities of the GDS include:

  • Running the GOV.UK website – where people can find government inforamtion and services; 
  • Working with the government to make public services more straightforward and better; 
  • Building cross-government platforms (like GOV.UK Verify) to confirm users are whom they say they are; 
  • Working to ensure government data is usable for all and secure
  • Helping departments make better-informed decisions 
  • Helping departments equip their staff with better value technology that is more of a tool and less of a barrier

That GDS team was set up in 2011 with a brief from the then Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, to haul the public service into the digital age. This was a good start for the digital transformation of the government. The new website,, was way cheaper than its predecessors and even won design of the year. Some new online services were introduced, such as setting up a power of attorney, and booking prison visits, among many others really made a mark among citizens. Some entrepreneurs even described GDS as “the best startup in Europe‘. Then, five years after the team started, the UK led the entire world in digital government, according to the UN. Many other governments took note and tried to replicate their efforts and results.

What made GDS successful was that it realised that it wasn’t about changing websites but about changing the government. The digital team saw that some public services were being developed separately by public organisations without considering what people needed. And, this was done at a high cost to the public purse making systems harder to use. By 2015, GDS had rebuilt some of these common components to be reused across the entire public sector. The team wanted to give everyone an incentive to raise the game; that’s why they published patterns and code.

In February 2017, the country launched a new digital transformation strategy for the 2017-2020 period, complemented by a solid legal framework. It ensured that all citizens had access to e-Government services with personalised digital identities while highlighting the importance of protecting their data privacy. In 2019, the government published the Technology Innovation Strategy – a roadmap for government innovation. And in that same year, GDS and the Office for Artificial Intelligence (OAI) of the UK published guidance on the use of artificial intelligence in the public sector.

Concerns about the future

Despite many successes of the UK’s government in digitalisation, it seems like its purpose has drifted. The GDS – once respected by all departments – is now peripheral, and many of its responsibilities have been curbed. Several international reports have also noticed this. For instance, in 2020, the UN announced that the UK had slipped to seventh in its world e-government rankings, falling six places in only four years. While according to the 2020 DESI index, it ranks eighth out of the 28 EU Member States, falling three places behind from a year before. The government needs to update its government services, addressing some legacy issues, the lack of experts and professionals, and the many cybersecurity and privacy challenges. While GDS did something else that no other team had done before, it still needs to create services that work for everyone and are safe, functional and accessible. If the UK wants to be a leading digital government again, it needs a digital team that can disrupt it self and lead with purpose driven innovation.



About the Author

Mohammad J Sear is focused on bringing purpose to digital in government.

He has obtained his leadership training from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, USA and holds an MBA from the University of Leicester, UK.

After a successful 12+ years career in the UK government during the premiership of three Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, Mohammad moved to the private sector and has now for 20+ years been advising government organizations in the UK, Middle East, Australasia and South Asia on strategic challenges and digital transformation.

He is currently working for Ernst & Young (EY) and leading the Digital Government practice efforts across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and is also a Digital Government and Innovation lecturer at the Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po, France.

As a thought-leader some of the articles he has authored include: “Digital is great but exclusion isn’t – make data work for driving better digital inclusion” published in Harvard Business Review, “Holistic Digital Government” published in the MIT Technology Review, “Want To Make Citizens Happy – Put Experience First” published in Forbes Middle East.

More from Mohammad J Sear



FRIDAY, 30 JUNE 2022