Estonia is frequently recognised as the most digitally advanced society, with 99% of government services accessible online. This provides a level of accessibility and efficiency that countries with digital infrastructure like the UK can only dream of. It also helped their COVID response by allowing them to quickly deploy tools to match volunteers with people needing assistance in the crisis, help companies share the workforce that would otherwise remain idle, and allow people to manage sick leave. This is one factor that has contributed to their 72nd position in the list of countries with the highest COVID deaths per 100,000 people, significantly lower than neighbouring countries like Latvia and Lithuania, and second lowest in Europe, after Cyprus. Building a digital government that combines the advantages of systems such as Estonia’s online services and Israel’s digital healthcare system, and pairs them to the strong local and national government, and NHS that we currently have could make one recently overused phrase come true: the UK could be truly world beating.
To fix the problems of inefficient engagement between government and citizens/businesses, the government should create a digital portal as the focal point through which as most government services are accessed. The existing Gov.uk Verify service is a starting point but lacks almost all the services/data that are required to deal with an emergency such as a pandemic. Currently you can only access some tax services, vehicle/driver licensing, some pensions benefits, and a few local government services. A completely different attitude should be taken within government towards digital services to fix this.
Firstly, a unified digital strategy must be developed for the whole of government, including all civil service, NHS, and other governmental agency services. This should unify both front end channels, and back end systems & data. A single modular portal, accessible via mobile apps and web browsers ensures people can access all the resources they need in one place. It could help to reduce fake news spreading online by providing a single source of trustworthy information. A single ID and verification could provide people with an easy way to manage their data and opt into services. An important aspect is that to comply with data regulation individuals must be able to control how their data is used and opt into services.
Once a single application with secure login functionality is created, existing government services such as HMRC & DVLA online services could be migrated to it. However, the real benefits would only be realised when a much wider set of services/data were introduced. Firstly, it should integrate with an EMR system used across the whole NHS. This could give the person’s GP, and A&E departments instant access to their medical records (vital during both a pandemic and normal times) whilst allowing the individual to consent to sharing the data with other providers to aid their treatment.
Integrating these services into a single app creates a foundation for the introduction of additional services, e.g. contact tracing could be released on the existing framework. This would speed up the release of new features in an emergency and allow individuals to opt-in to sharing data. This would solve the issue of people being told to isolate by the app not being eligible for financial support. If an individual opted-in to receive financial support, in the event of a close contact testing positive the app could check the individuals tax records to check eligibility for support, and send the application, resulting in an automated process with much less risk of fraudulent payments being made.
There is also the possibility of using a unified digital service to provide more robust checking for financial support such as the furlough schemes. A huge amount of money has been lost to fraudulent claims, but if individuals were asked to login online to a verified account in order to receive furlough payments, and these were then cross referenced with the applications from employers, it would prevent some of the fraudulent claims made on behalf of fake companies or for fake employees. By creating business accounts for registered businesses in the same portal, HMRC would be able to manage the process much more efficiently.
An example of how this service could help in the event of a future pandemic or emergency shows how useful it could be. An individual could complete all the following actions in a single app:
1. Find out about restrictions in their area (central/local government)
2. Enable track and trace (central government)
3. Verify their employers furlough claim, or register for self employed financial support (HMRC)
4. Ensure their medical records are up to date and shared with the right NHS departments in case they are admitted to hospital (NHS) 5. Log any symptoms and receive digital GP appointments to try and prevent deterioration in their condition requiring hospitalisation (NHS)
6. Check that their MOT has been extended (DVLA)
7. Register for any additional benefits or isolation financial support they become eligible for (HMRC/DWP)
8. Apply for emergency financial support from local government or contact council housing teams if they end up in need of emergency housing (local councils)
9. Register to receive a vaccine (NHS)
In normal times the following benefits could also be realised:
1. Save businesses time and money due to easier access to government services e.g. tax and employment
2. Provide easier access 24/7 for individuals to access many government services, especially beneficial to those working long hours or unavailable during working hours e.g. tax/benefits/update personal details etc.
3. Reduced cost of running government services due to increased digital self-serving by individuals and companies.
4. Provide people with more control how their data is used
5. Better use of existing data to guide government policy
6. The opportunity to identify and fill gaps in data gaps required for both operational and strategic policy use
7. More efficient control and use of patient medical records, especially when patients move between different areas
8. Better access to NHS services such as digital consultations.