Is Government the winner of the UK digital transformation race?

uk digital transformation
© Zoltan Gabor

Digital and Technology Services Director at Opencast Software Jason Kay gives us an insight into UK digital transformation, and how the Government is paving the way for sustainable and effective digitisation

For some time now, both the public and private sectors have been working to enhance their products and services through technology adoption. It has been an uphill battle for many CTOs as they attempt to push through red tape, challenge the status quo and get the board onside to ensure they are able to deliver a digital transformation programme that adds real value to both the business and its customers.

The UK Government has succeeded in doing just this. Viewed by many on the outside as a slow-moving organisation which finds strategic planning challenging, over the last few years the Government has genuinely transformed many key areas through its approach to digitalisation. It is no exaggeration to say that, today, the UK Government has overtaken many of its private- sector counterparts in the digital transformation race.

So, what lessons can the private sector learn from the Government’s approach, and how can the Government continue to stay out in front?

Setting standards

In 2011, Government Digital Service (GDS), a new unit of the Cabinet Office, was tasked to transform the provision of online services to the UK and drive the Government’s ‘Digital by Default’ strategy. Soon after its formation, GDS implemented an industry set of Service Standards that would seek to standardise all government departments approach to digital, in a bid to ensure a level of consistency across various services.

Service Standards are far-reaching, from enforcing standards around the experience and level of people employed, data security and the job roles within each team. At the time of their introduction, these new techniques and standards were initially challenging for government agencies to take on board, particularly due to the pace of change required and how this was enforced.

Now, however, these standards can be thanked for much of the digital transformation progress that has been made. Not only have they encouraged each department to rethink its approach to digital, they also sparked a new wave of thinking about how the government can ensure that it provides a level of service that individuals want and will help alleviate strain on the government itself. For example, HMRC was once one of the country’s largest publishers due to the sheer amount of paper that it would use to contact individuals. By working within the framework of the Service Standards, and encouraging new thinking, it is now operating some of the best and most technologically advanced, paperless government services.

There is no reason why the private sector cannot seek to learn from this example. Within retail banking, some High Street banks are both ramping up their digital strategies and delivering new and more innovative approaches to banking. It leaves us to question whether they could also see the same level of success from introducing industry standards. How would digital transformation benefit both the banks themselves and, most importantly, their customers?

True collaboration

Also, key to the Government’s rapid pace of digital transformation has been the shift in how it works with outside agencies. Once it was the case that Government would select suppliers and outside partners based on long-standing relationships and, generally, it would not look beyond the biggest players in each field. Upon enlisting an outside partner, the attitude was that the supplier would keep to themselves, get the job done and not work with the existing team on the ground.

That approach has since been turned on its head, with departments only being able to choose outside partners who are ‘prepared to pass on their expertise’ and ensure that they work with existing teams. By adopting this approach, the government has not only managed to successfully upskill its existing tech teams, but also opened itself up to a whole new wave of more advanced, agile and like-minded consultancies who can help to deliver projects with significant cost advantage and, in most cases, quicker.

The impact of this has been that the Government has managed to create a unique blend of talent in each team with a mix of existing talent and outside partners. When this unique skillset is combined and given the remit to push the boundaries of digital transformation, numerous problems can and have been solved, and smoother processes implemented as a result.

The long-term impact of this approach is yet more impressive, as the government has become the ‘go-to’ employer for tech graduates. Once an accolade given to the financial services sector, the government is now perceived by many as the place to go to advance your skillset and get a foot on the career ladder.

Levelling the playing field

Whilst the Government has made great pace in certain areas – HMRC, DWP and NHS BSA are all great case studies for how the Government has advanced its digital services – it’s not to be assumed that every department has the same level of success.

The siloed nature of government has meant some departments have seen the impact of the GDS’s changes quicker than others. Those departments who have less budget, or who don’t have the same demand to expand into digital, still have a long way to travel in their digital journey and will need support from outside partners with the right expertise and approach to get them there.

Over the last few years, the government has adopted digital transformation at a rate that has meant it has surpassed expectations in adopting digital. It has managed to become more efficient while also enhancing its culture and attracting some of the best talent as a result. There are many lessons that the private sector can adopt from government. However, it’s important to remember that there is still work to be done and the digital race is never truly run – there will always be something new to think about. That is what makes it such an interesting area to work in!

DEFRA: Ensuring sustainability in digital transformation

The UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), is currently at the beginning of its new strategy “Greening government: ICT and digital services strategy 2020-2025” which was published towards the end of 2020, to ensure that digital transformation is, and will continue to be, as sustainable as possible. This new strategy, created by a cross-government team and led by Defra, sets out how the government can provide responsible and resilient ICT and digital services to all its end-users and customers, contributing to wider sustainability targets such as net-zero carbon by 2050.

All ICT and Digital projects and programmes subject to the Spend Controls Process will be obligated to include sustainable ICT and procurement must meet the following standards:

  • 100% renewable energy and/or carbon neutral suppliers.
  • 0% ICT waste going to landfill to and an annual increase in reuse and material recycling.
  • Increased transparency across HMG, suppliers, and the supply chain, (this has been a major hurdle among providers in the past.)
  • 100% traceability of ICT at end of life.
  • A yearly increase in procured ICT and services that is remanufactured.

Furthermore, to ensure these standards are being met, departments will have to report on them in their Annual Reports and Accounts and the Greening Government Commitments. This will lead to an increase in buying more sustainable and efficient technology and digital services.

The main targets of the strategy include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving waste management, and increased responsibility, resilience, accountability, and collaboration in digital. This strategy is to be used by everyone involved and interested in government ICT and digital services, including government ICT and digital services professionals, end-users, and both suppliers and supply chains, and will provide environmental and economic benefits for all.

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Digital & Technology Services Director
Opencast Software
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