How can we enact digital change within central Government?
It was no surprise to me to see another report about how red tape and old-style leadership is stifling innovation in central Government.
Given the complexity of the Government machine, it’s inevitable that delivering change can be a painful process, and move at a ‘glacial’ pace in our fast moving digital era.
It has also been interesting to hear the news of Mike Bracken’s resignation at the top of the Government Digital Service. It is clear that strong leadership is needed to realise change.
A typical project will include many stakeholders – and all it takes is one senior person not bought into a proposal for the whole thing to be derailed. It’s very much a case of politics with a ‘little p’.
Digital can enable new services and the delivery of existing ones in more effective and efficient ways – however this progress can be hampered if its implementation impacts long-standing processes, Government policy or indeed headcount numbers.
So if red tape and this ‘old-style’ leadership is holding back innovation – how can it be overcome?
It’s important to remember that cumbersome processes, slow decision-making and a lack of agility is not at all unique to Whitehall. It’s a characteristic of many large organisations. But some organisations have cracked it – with businesses returning to a ‘start-up mentality’ and rediscovering their innovation DNA.
For central Government, controls and processes will always be required to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely; and rightly so. However, senior leaders within the civil service must also foster a culture of innovation, and changes must be given the chance to breathe. This will give people the chance to get on board and behind the new ways of working.
What can Government change?
It’s a challenge given their size so a focus worth considering is greater and more visible cross-pollination between Departments. Senior leaders should have an expectation placed upon them to seek and deliver change and improvement across Government – not just their own Department. Perhaps there should be a mechanism to help incentivise this.
Right now, there are some Departments doing excellent work – and others which are not. If we can break the loop of self-interest and boundary protection, it will encourage civil servants to seek out where a problem has been solved elsewhere in Government before seeing how it can solved (again) in their own Department.
Establishing a degree of trust between Departments will then see a shift towards them perhaps becoming service providers for each other – rather than trying to deliver absolutely everything in each Departmental silo.
Given the huge onus on central Government to deliver the billions of savings required in the next five years, the potential of shared services needs to be examined.
This should be a top priority, from both an internal operations and a citizen services perspective.
Why should individual Departments each be running their own support services, such as HR, when it could be shared across Whitehall? Enterprise scale ERP has the potential to completely transform Government in this respect. By taking away the management burden associated with these ‘peripheral’ services, Departments can focus on what really matters – i.e. their core mandates.
Our Digital Inside Out report found more than half of UK consumers feel that the Government could be doing more to drive us towards a digital future.
It’s telling then that 20% of people want to see improvements to central Government digital services, while nearly a quarter of central Government employees strongly agreed that more investment in technology applications is needed.
There are some great examples of what has worked well so far: you just have to look at the gov.uk website as the prime example.
If services fail to deliver on the public digital expectation, Government becomes more separated from the population it represents, and it becomes less efficient to run and effective in its operations. This is the last thing the UK needs to ensure our future economic growth.
For a democratic society in a free market economy, it’s imperative that Government is efficient in delivery of services. It means it can then do more with taxpayers’ money, or need less of it.
Technology advances in just the last five years have been so great that any organisation, public or private sector, has to re-examine its relationship with the public and understand how digital services are transforming customer or citizen engagement.
Digital offers a huge opportunity for Government to revolutionise the services it delivers, and connect more closely with the UK population.
This opportunity must be seized. If it is not, we risk even greater dissatisfaction with Government services, and a missed chance to truly transform public sector efficiency.
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