Digital transformation lessons from the trials and tribulations of the NHS contact-tracing app

Alan Brown, Professor in Digital Economy outlines the lessons from the UK track and trace app.

The Summer of 2020 will be remembered as an unprecedented time for digital transformation. Many believe that the adoption of digital technologies has advanced more in the past 5 months than it has in the previous 5 years. Barriers to digital technology adoption evaporated as the global pandemic brought travel restrictions, meeting bans, and workplace disruption that forced rapid moves to digital ways of working and living. Extraordinary changes have taken place in a short amount of time.

This has not been without its challenges. A high-profile illustration of the issues is the UK government digital technology adventures regarding the Covid-19 “contact-tracing” app. Whether seen as a masterclass in mismanagement, a data handling disaster,  or a reminder of the vagaries of human behaviour, millions of pounds has been wasted, and delays and mis-steps have potentially had fatal consequences for those vulnerable in the current crisis. Having initially built its own solution from the ground up over the spring 2020, the app was soon abandoned after trials received numerous complaints which resulted in very slow adoption. In September 2020, a new app was released with a simpler architecture based on technologies from Apple and Google.

Inevitably, questions are being asked about where and when this project began to go wrong, and what can be learned from this journey. There are several ways to address this. One key perspective is to see the struggles of this project as an illustration of the underlying issues with the UK digital strategy as a whole. Let me explain.

What is happening today seems to be an inevitable consequence of the UK Government’s longer-term digital strategy that emphasises building new solutions rather than look to leverage existing capabilities and commercially built alternatives. Advances in software development make it quick and easy for anyone to create a website, launch a Minimal Viable Product (MVP), or build an app. The temptation in today’s digital world is to argue that digital transformation should be dominated by new solutions built quickly and cheaply with an evolutionary approach to architecture, an emphasis on rapid new feature delivery, and a priority toward ease of use over scalable deployment. This has clear advantages for emerging scenarios focused on rapid learning but often at a cost to stability and resilience.

For many people responsible for the UK Government’s digital strategy there is a strong view that the growing capabilities provided by today’s digital technologies and a passion for agile delivery methods induces a build-first experimental style. While this can often be valuable, it also brings significant challenges to maintain control of evolving requirements, to ensure balanced approaches to determining risks, to force robust architectural consistency across key design decisions, and to coordinate diverse stakeholders. An emphasis on “strategy is delivery” can be invigorating to break through bureaucratic roadblocks, but it must be aligned with good engineering practices and supported with processes that embed industry norms for quality.

The contract-tracing app development can only be evaluated in the context of this strategy. The decision taken in March 2020 was to develop a new app based on a centralized data management approach rather than use the decentralized data management approach enabled through an API developed by Apple and Google. A choice that was widely discussed and criticized at the time by software and security experts.

The reasons given for the choice of approach centred around the UK Government’s wish to have all data recorded by the deployed apps to be available to them and under their control. To achieve this, the new app’s design caused several complications. Not the least of which is that the app collected all data in one large government-controlled datastore and required Bluetooth connectivity to detect nearby phones and transmit data. Consequently, it needed to be constantly enabled on each mobile phone with severe impact on battery usage.

Immediately after the announcements there were widespread complaints in terms of the viability of the proposed technical approach based on Bluetooth to determine proximity to others, the desirability for users knowing they would be installing a battery-draining app sending data on all their movements to a central store, and security concerns over the UK Government’s poor record in handling large amounts of sensitive personal data. Initial trials highlighted the difficulties of making this work in practice.

Of course, there are many considerations beyond the technical aspects of the contact-tracing app. Subsequent much broader analyses highlighted political, health policy, and government oversight concerns to the long list of issues. The conclusions emphasised that serious elements of this failed approach required further investigation. Eventually, this first app was abandoned after months of development and trials, with a reported sunk cost of over £10 million. A new app was developed which uses Apple and Google’s technology where data is stored on an individual’s mobile phone rather than in a central server. A total of more than £35 million will eventually be spent on creating the contact-tracing app.

What can be learned from the past few months? The story of the contact-tracing app is a great illustration of the importance of recognizing the importance of three complementary digital strategies for the UK Government:

  • As engineers of digital solutions building new bespoke capabilities.
  • As evangelists for digital solutions that already exist and can be widely adopted.
  • As entrepreneurs of digital solutions that require investment to meet new usage models.

As we have argued for the past few years, the government digital strategy should emphasize its position as a platform for integrating service delivery and not as a developer of new solutions.

Far from jumping in to build new digital technologies (as engineers), it is essential that the UK government devotes much more of its energy to promoting adoption of existing solutions and commercially-built alternatives to ensure successful uptake (as evangelists), and to investing time and resources to adapt commercial solutions and delivery processes to be successful for public sector needs (as entrepreneurs). A balance across these three approaches is essential. Adopting platform thinking brings an emphasis on opening up government services to be more efficient and effective.

Observing the journey with the UK’s contract-tracing app reminds us once again that starting with the right mindset is a precursor for success. Digital transformation is more about adopting the right digital attitude and approach than it is about writing the right lines of code.

This blog was originally published on, 24 October 2020

Professor Alan BrownProfessor Alan Brown is Professor of Digital Economy from the Initiative in the Digital Economy at Exeter (INDEX)  at the University of Exeter Business School.