Government at ‘tipping point’ over digital, says think tank

Institute for Government report identifies issues with leadership, legacy systems and retention of skilled staff, while warning of Brexit ‘distraction’.

Tipping point: IfG report calls for leadership to realise the potential of digital transformation – Photo credit: Flickr, Chris, CC BY 2.0

The government has not made the most of the opportunities offered by digital and needs to significantly improve leadership or risk ending up with poor quality services and wasted investment, a report has said.

The paper, published today by the Institute for Government, suggested that the government could save between £1.3bn and £2bn by 2020 if it were to make a success of digital technologies.

However, it said that reaching this ambition would require “sustained attention” that is “not currently in evidence”, saying that ministers were distracted with preparations for Britain’s exit from the European Union.

The government, the report said, is struggling to progress from the first phase of digital transformation to the large-scale changes required, which will mean changing civil servants’ attitude to digital, ensuring that policy teams work better with those working on digital transformation, and that the concept is embraced by leaders across government – not just in IT teams.

“We have reached a tipping point. If the leadership does not emerge to drive the changes, there is a risk that digital teams will continue to be viewed as website designers, brought in only at the very end of policy design processes,” the report said. 

“There is a risk that insufficient investment will be made in the capabilities needed to build new services, leading to poor quality; or to manage the newly in-house IT infrastructure, leading to failure.”

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The report sets out a series of challenges and recommendations for Theresa May and her government to overcome if it wants the UK to realise the potential of digital for public services.

This includes making policy teams work better with digital projects, with the report saying that digital has not been immune to Whitehall’s long-standing tradition of ”making policy without sufficient attention being given to the practicalities of implementation”.

The disconnect between policy and implementation is exacerbated by the customer-supplier relationship government has with its IT contractors, and the report noted that it would be hard to test or make changes to IT systems during development even if it wanted to.

The report said that the adaptive approach offered by agile working practices could go some way towards addressing this, but only if they are brought in early on.

“This means embracing a new kind of policymaking,” the report said, with multidisciplinary teams of policy managers, user researchers, developers and designers working together to develop policies.

However, this sort of change will require more than this new operating model for policy development – the report stressed that it would also require ministers to embrace “a new kind of conversation” about policy that is based on prototypes as well as submissions.

This relates to another major challenge the report identifies for digital government: the need to expand strong digital leadership from being the remit of the digital and technology teams to something that all senior civil servants are engaged with.

One aspect of this will be pushing departments to understand the benefits of digital methods such as agile working – where small releases are made and constantly iterated – over waterfall approaches that progress in a linear fashion and can leave services locked-in to unsuitable designs.

At the same time, the report said that digital teams must recognise that some aspects of project management still need use traditional governance, especially when the digital project is part of a wider transformation programme.

The challenge for government departments, the report said, is to find the right trade-off that balances the flexibility of agile working with the government’s need to meet certain deadlines.

There is also a need for government to focus on improving its legacy systems, which are “slow, keep data fragmented and prevent services from being joined up”, and that it has so far caused many new services to be built on top of existing legacy IT. This means government is “only able to realise a small part – better online customer interaction for existing services – of what digital has to offer”, the report said.

“There are risks in changing systems, but it is a necessary step towards digital government,” it said.

Government’s digital skills gap

Another challenge government faces is that many of the skills needed for good digital government are in high demand across the private sector, which makes attracting and retaining staff difficult.

“The frustration of trying to recruit digital staff was evident in almost every interview we conducted,” the report authors said.

The biggest barrier was external labour market conditions, such as pay structures, but other issues identified include a perceived lack of career progression, an over-reliance on temporary staff and departments trying to “poach” digital leaders from each other.

The report called for the creation of a true digital, data and technology profession and a conclusion of its review into reward structures for digital specialists. In addition, it noted that competition in London was much greater than elsewhere in the UK, and recommended creating digital centres of expertise outside the capital to build on this.

The Government Digital Service’s new leader Kevin Cunnnington has gone some way towards addressing this, with his announcement last week that digital, data and technology staff will be subject to a different set of competencies from the rest of the civil service.

In addition, he emphasised that GDS will be expanded its regional reach, for instance through taking over the Department for Work and Pensions’ digital academy and making it a nationwide resource.

GDS leadership ‘needs time’ to bed in

Meanwhile, the report said that GDS’ role in the current parliament “has been unclear” and that it needed to extend its reach and impact across government.

This should involve establishing good relationships with the policy profession, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority and the Treasury, as well as with the heads of agencies and departments’ permanent secretaries.

There should also be a focus on helping departments with the toughest digital challenges and on services that cross organisational boundaries, the report said.

“Departments do not have incentives to work on other departments’ priorities, even if doing so might produce a net benefit,” the report said.

“We would like to see GDS putting its weight behind projects of this sort – offering expertise and capacity to overcome the resource challenge, and using spending controls to incentivise joint working.”

However, it acknowledged that GDS was under new leadership – Cunnington only took over from Stephen Foreshew-Cain in August – and that it would need time to settle in.

Nonetheless, the authors urged government not to let this or the ongoing Brexit negotiations allow it to lose the momentum on digital reform, which it said had massively benefited the civil service as well as the public.

“The digital reform movement has created a community of civil servants who are vocally invested in changing government for the better,” the report said.

“This passionate advocacy may create tension as well as enthusiasm, but if government misses the opportunity to harness it, it is unlikely to be able to generate it again.”


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