Last week I had the pleasure of taking part in a discussion organised by Policy Exchange exploring ‘what’s worked, what’s not, what’s next?’ in digital government in the UK. It was a thought provoking event with contributions from the Head of the Government Digital Service, Mike Bracken; Labour’s Chi Onwurah; the tech savvy new Conservative MP Matt Warman and Laura Citron of WPP.
Much has been achieved over the past five years, there remains much more yet to do. In this blog I share some thoughts on how government and industry can collaborate in order to improve digital services.
“Every industry and business constantly needs to adapt its internal processes and governance to accommodate digital disruption. We are no different in government.”
– Mike Bracken, GDS Blog 14 March 2013
In blogs, interviews and articles during Mike Bracken’s time at the helm of GDS, the theme of disruption has been at the heart of the GDS approach to government. Indeed, disruption was my starting point for what has worked in the digital government agenda.
Digital is transforming pretty much every aspect of our lives. For business, market forces have been have been a natural driver for change; think personal banking or retail. Those businesses which fail to adapt so as to attract or retain customers pay the price.
Government is by its nature, a monopoly and thus lacks market drivers. Only Government can issue a passport or compel us to pay taxes.
Instead its impetus comes from the need to be efficient (i.e. save money), to be effective (e.g. in implementing policy, and in delivering services to citizens) and, increasingly, to provide a more positive citizen experience. Stand out achievements such as Gov.uk and Verify are transforming citizen interactions with the state.
Whilst many services (such as paying taxes) were online before the creation of GDS, it has driven the response to digital disruption, supporting change within very well established organisations. Right across government, departments and agencies are thinking about digital in a different way thanks to GDS.
We remain at a relatively early stage of a national journey of transformation to digital; within this the term digital government is arguably something of a misnomer. What we are actually talking about is using technology to enable a national change programme.
Government is in the process of unlocking the potential of technology to create robust and secure systems able to cope with extraordinary demands placed upon them by citizens whilst reducing the cost of delivery wherever they can. GDS has a leading role to play in ensuring end-to-end change from the internal systems used by civil servants to the external services used by citizens. We should also move beyond just cutting the costs of IT and instead use IT to cut the costs of government.
What is the role of wider Government in delivering this approach and how do they maintain its consistency? Making a sustainable change requires coordination, and in government that need for coordination is wide-spread – it is geographically spread, covers a broad range of issues and departments/agencies, each with their own goals. Clear guidance from the “centre” must be matched by an understanding on the role which departments will play.
In that context the GDS Structure and Role should be considered. Will it continue to be outside the Departmental structure? Is GDS primarily consultative or is it going to sustainably deliver services and be a provider to departments? If so, it will need to switch from ‘challenger’ to ‘supplier’ mode.
Such a centralised approach would have implications for departments and risk losing expertise that already exists by taking the design of systems away from those tasked with delivery. Where will the balance be struck? How much change to the machinery of government would be required to achieve the kind of vision set out by GDS and what would this mean for the “traditional” model of Government?
Beyond central government, the role GDS is to play in enabling transformation in local government remains unclear. The Northern Powerhouse is a priority for this government and will bring together local and national agencies, as well as the public and private sectors. Delivering this successfully will be about hearts and minds, not merely authority and technology, so it will be helpful to know how GDS can contribute in this regard.
Whilst we grapple with the long term challenge of truly digitalising government, Government as a Platform (GaaP) has the potential to deliver much of what we are trying to achieve. In my view GaaP should have three initial priorities:
- Enabling a single or consistent interface to citizens – that prevents them having to submit the same information multiple times and provides interfaces that are appropriate to the service (advising of a death is a different type of service to completing a tax return).
- Introducing new or changed capabilities into Departments to enable efficiencies in delivering a Department’s business processes to release civil servants from archaic processes to do other, higher value tasks.
- Introduce common back-office or shared services across Departments. Why are there so many HR, payroll and finance systems? Or so many different ways of handling calls enquiring on the status of a letter?
Alongside this drive for end-to-end transformation there are some, perhaps counterintuitive aspects too. If we look to the private sector, many companies recognise that the foundations of their business lies in their backend systems, which don’t need to be changed to deliver new services in new ways. A rational approach to managing existing infrastructure is needed.
The existing estate should be efficient – for example, utilising cloud services and commercial models to ensure that you are only paying for what is used, but much can and should continue. Ultimately, what’s right is what works.
From an industry perspective, much is underway with GDS in delivering new digital services, optimising and digitalising existing services and achieving longer term transformation of government for a digital age.
GDS should encourage engagement with industry – from small to large companies. techUK recently surveyed around 1000 civil servants and found that over 80% of respondents believed that “the IT industry is critical to enabling their Department to deliver its business plan” while 64% felt “it is useful to have contact with suppliers before the procurement process begins”.
Conversely, only about a quarter of them believed that “there is sufficient pre-procurement engagement with industry to help deliver public services”. Understanding the full range of capabilities within industry will ensure that government is able to determine and deliver the solutions which work.
So looking back to what has worked, there is much that GDS has achieved, but there remains a long way to go and it will require GDS, the departments and industry working together to get us there. As Mike Bracken said in Civil Service World in February this year “be innovative, experimental, and disruptive”; now let’s work together to ensure that this acts as a catalyst for ongoing sustainable improvements.
Steven is Executive Director for Public Sector, Fujitsu UK & Ireland.
View more from last week’s event in the video below:
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