The second talk in the keynote hall at Fujitsu World Tour 2018 in London was somewhat more political than our usual content.
That’s not to say Director of the Institute for Government Bronwen Maddox leaned on one side of the debate or the other. What she did do, however, was give an honest and impartial breakdown of the way Brexit has impacted government digital transformation so far.
And I’m relieved to say not all of it was negative.
Before we delve into that, how does Bronwen feel generally about the state of digital in the public sector?
A promising start
One thing Bronwen was keen to stress is that the government has come a long way on digital transformation in a relatively short space of time – no mean feat for a sector that isn’t famed for being fast-moving.
Everything from applying for a passport to getting a tax disc, she highlighted, can now be done online. And while it’s difficult to precisely measure the public reaction to such initiatives, Bronwen is confident that citizens do appreciate the changes.
But it’s the government’s digital ambition, Bronwen argued, that has shown the most promise.
“A huge number of government ministers have made digital transformation central to their future vision,” she said. “This puts us in an entirely different place to five years ago.”
Public take-up of digital services, too, is increasing fast. This is evidence, Bronwen suggested, that where digital services are offered people do tend to take them up.
So how has Brexit impacted all this?
The Brexit effect
Whatever your stance on whether we should leave the EU or not, one thing is clear: none of us can be 100% certain what Brexit is going to look like. Or even when exactly it will happen.
There are two points on digital transformation Bronwen raised that the government ought to be aware of in the run-up to the end of 2020, when the Brexit transition period is currently set to end.
The first is how short a timeframe that leaves to get all the necessary IT changes in place to operate in a post-Brexit Britain.
Even when relatively minor VAT changes came in, Bronwen reminded us, businesses were given two or three years to prepare.
“With the kind of changes we’re talking about (with Brexit),” she said, “and the systems needed, we’re going to need many more years than that.”
The second point Bronwen raised was that all this work on Brexit has become a distraction from any digital transformation work the government was previously working on, which means many projects are not getting the attention they need.
“It’s an enormous diversion of money and energy from the things the government was planning to do,” she argued.
All of that said: Bronwen was keen to stress that Brexit has had some positive impact on digital transformation in government.
“It’s forcing departments to work together in ways they never have before and invest in new systems,” she said. “Regardless of the shape of Brexit, there are real benefits to being forced to embrace change in this way.”
Whichever way the land lies after Brexit is said and done, Bronwen had some advice for the government to help it achieve its digital ambitions.
And the most pressing issue might surprise you. Bronwen believes that one of the main reasons many digital initiatives fail to get off the ground is simply down to the Treasury’s approvals process, otherwise known as The Green Book.
Current guidance on how to evaluate new projects, Bronwen argued, forces people to give exact figures on how much things will cost and what the return on investment will be.
This might have worked for the IT innovations of old, but digital innovation today relies on agility – on starting small, testing, failing, adjusting.
As a result, Bronwen argued, “We’re not always getting the best we could for the UK” when it comes to digital investment.
It seems, then, that the government needs to start thinking in a more digital way and adjusting its processes accordingly.
If it doesn’t, we may never see the kind of digital innovation that would fulfil the government’s ambitions, whatever the outcome of Brexit.