A lynchpin of the digital tech cluster in North East England is the longstanding presence of central government administrative hubs.
In living memory, the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) and Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) stationed more than 10,000 staff in nissen huts on the edge of Newcastle. The teams were originally commissioned to administer the social welfare systems, but HMRC tax contributions elements and National Insurance collection were also consolidated in the region.
More government processing followed: NHS pensions, Student Loan Company (now Student Finance England) and Rural Payments Agency. The Prescription Pricing Authority is also based in Newcastle, processing 70 million transactions each month.
All were ripe for computerisation. Add policy shifts of different governments, such as Universal Credit, and these bodies are kept constantly busy maintaining and updating their systems. Growth continued through the 1980s with outsource partner firms investing in the region, now home to the largest UK presence for firms like BT, Accenture, Cap Gemini, EDS/HP (Now DXE). These firms employ a combined 12,500 staff in the region.
The universities have helped with training programmes to support growth. A dependence on IT has also led to the need for cyber security vigilance.
The refrain now is that government services should be ‘digital by default’ and GDS, the Government Digital Service, has increased its presence in the region to support this digital transformation.
Now Government programmes must keep pace with the way that users interact with computer technology, with a constant need to invest in platforms, user experience, cyber security and legacy systems. The boom in the ‘App Economy’ brings the potential for UK government processes to be exported and opens up some gateways for better data integration between government and user or maybe allowing users direct access to their own data for open source app opportunities.
Much of the information held by governments is highly sensitive, however it is promising that Newcastle University has been awarded the funding to create the National Innovation Centre for Data for academics to work on Big Data in the public domain. The Northern Powerhouse has started a number of open data initiatives showing the way for city regions to allow crowdsourced work on datasets.
Govtech is hard. But, Dynamo aspires to create a workstream to open up debate around data governance amongst the region’s government departments, working with the national Catapult programmes and the five universities.