What the Recent Errors From the Track and Trace System Show Us About Future of the Digital State

Benedict Churchus discusses the recent test and trace scandal in which the NHS Excel error scrambled 16000 coronavirus test results.

Keir Starmer’s follow up question in PMQs highlighted what myself and many colleagues within the technology sector were troubled by, after reports that nearly 16,000 coronavirus cases went unreported due to a data processing error within Excel. Starmer stating “This isn’t just a technical issue; this is a human issue.” The Prime Minister responded with “He can’t have it both ways, it can’t be a human error and a basic Excel error.” But Boris Johnson is wrong, errors in systems only happen due to human error, either by design flaws or misuse.

Computer programmer Melvin E. Conway in 1968 wrote an essay titled “How Do Committees Invent?” One sentence from it quickly became known as Conway’s law. An adage still used; it states:

“Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization's communication structure.”

According to Conway’s Law, Serco’s production of the track and trace system is a copy of the communication structure of its track and trace project. The loss of data is troubling not only in isolation, but also because it confirms the critiques Labour has made about the Government’s handling of this crisis: that they are careless, wasteful and missing fundamental foresight.

If this incident reflects anything, it reflects the environment in which our track-and-trace system is being run.  Whilst Johnson back in May was advocating for a privately-ran ‘world-beating track and trace system’ we already had an in-house world leading Digital Service, one that in 2016 topped the UN Rankings of digital governments.

The digital state has been an aim of policy since 2010 when a ‘Digital by Default’ strategy was pursued by the coalition government. The first major move of government was to create the Government Digital Service (GDS) in 2011. The GDS was headed up by Mike Bracken who himself was led by a Government as a Platform strategy.

Government as a Platform (GaaP) is itself from a Tim O’Reilly essay in 2011. In it he puts forward that government is a platform for key services such as the emergency services, local bin collections and in the case of the UK – health. That if the government is already a platform for services, how can we use technology to make it a better platform? O’Reilly articulates the case for principles including openness, simplicity and participation being included in Government digital structures in order to provide its population with better services.

A follow-up comparative study of digital states in 2017 by Helen Margetts and Andre Naumann hypothesises that the UK ‘has embraced the more informal principles of experimentation, a ‘hacking’ culture and data mining, but has struggled with openness, simplicity and participation,’ and contended that the UK’s leading role could be challenged. That’s proven to be true with the UK, whilst still highly regarded, has slipped from it’s top position in 2020.

The Labour Party is in prime position to make the case for a renewal in the GDS, and furthering GaaP, we share the principles of openness and participation. Participation and co-operation in particular has been the cornerstone of the Labour party movement. Our values match the aims of how a digital state can ideally support the provision of the services that people need.

The president of epidemiology at the Royal Society of Medicine Dr. Gabriel Scally recently argued in early September that the “hugely expensive, private sector-based, national approach to dealing with the virus must be replaced with a comprehensive Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support system based around local authorities…” He has already been proven correct.

The Excel incident is indicative of a communication structure that is not effective. These are the mistakes we cannot afford to make in the difficult autumn and winter to come. Labour should argue for a local system of track-and-trace supported by our existing digital state. We as a party should commit to extending the GDS to fully reflect those shared GaaP and Labour values of openness, simplicity and participation. The case for a functioning digital state providing quality services has only been strengthened by recent events.

Benedict Churchus currently works in the software sector. He is particularly interested in data, computing education policy and using political mapping tools for local campaigning.

He tweets at @BenChurchus.



Digital by default on gov.uk


1968 How Do Committees Invent? Melvin Conway



2011 Government as a Platform Tim O’Reilly






Government As A Platform: What Can Estonia Show The World? Helen Margetts and Andre Naumann 2017




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