Daniel Thornton at the Institute for Government highlights some of the challenges for digital government, with its complex objectives and legacies
Generations of internet start-ups have transformed services for consumers – starting with search, moving on to retail and banking, and now with the development of new services built on the sharing economy. Citizens also expect public services to be transformed. But while 4 out of 5 adults in Great Britain use the internet every day, only two-thirds have ever transacted online with government.
“Digital transformation” is an expression that’s now mentioned a lot in the public sector, but it’s often not understood. There’s a big gap between where government is and how the best services work in the private sector.
The model of a start-up, which can develop new processes that use digital technology from scratch, looks attractive, but is rarely relevant to government. This is partly because government is often trying to do things that have complex objectives, but also because government has legacies and obligations that are not relevant to the private sector.
There are six challenges for digital government:
1. Government needs to recognise the scale of change that is required in services, organisations, processes and ways of working. This will require leadership beyond digital teams and IT departments. Permanent secretaries and heads of agencies need to “get” digital and make sure their organisations are prepared to adapt and work across organisational boundaries. And ultimately ministers need to be prepared to lead change.
2. Government needs to understand how technology can create new options for policy. For example, before automatic number plate recognition was available, creating a congestion charge for central London would have meant toll booths – which would have created more traffic. So understanding digital technology needs to be built in early to the policymaking process, which will mean policy and digital professionals working together in a new way.
3. Government needs to update its technology. Some of the public sector’s main services – such as pensions – run on systems going back to the 1980s. These are slow, inflexible and insecure. These systems will need to be updated if the full benefits are to be realised.
4. Government must improve the way it manages digital work. “Agile” development involves decision-making which is swift, and as close to the user as possible. This is not how decisions are made in government, with its overlapping layers of control from the centre and within departments and agencies. Public servants need to learn the specialist skills to do this, and a new approach to risk is needed.
5. Government needs to continue to build centres of expertise outside London, and to develop specialist terms and conditions to recruit digital staff. Recruiting and retaining staff with the skills needed to manage digital transformation is hard, particularly around London.
6. The centre of government – led by the Government Digital Service (GDS) – needs to be clear about its role and how digital can support everyone in the civil service. GDS’s head, Kevin Cunnington, has said that GDS will focus on supporting departments with digital transformation, particularly where joining up services for citizens is failing to happen because departments and agencies are not working together as they should.
This is a fine aspiration but it remains to be seen how this will work in practice.
The UK government has, over the last few years, had a good international reputation for its digital performance, with GDS being emulated in the US, Australia and Singapore, and the code for GOV.UK being used by New Zealand. But a recent study comparing the performance of governments on digital services across the EU found that the UK was a “moderate” performer – behind both France and Germany.
The Cameron government made much of its commitment to digital government. For example, in 2015, George Osborne heralded a ‘digital revolution’ in Whitehall, and committed £450m of funding to it. The current Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, said nothing about this in his first fiscal statement in autumn 2016. Theresa May has also stayed silent on the subject, in contrast to David Cameron’s enthusiastic support. While the hard work of transformation lies in departments and agencies, people notice when an agenda is supported from the top of government – and when it isn’t.
It’s time for the UK government to redouble its efforts to meet the digital challenge, and bring real transformation to public services.