Expert reaction: Transformation strategy shows promise, but needs cross-Whitehall buy-in

The government transformation strategy provides a good rationale for the next stage of work, but more it needs vocal backing from senior politicians, experts have said.

The strategy needs sustained investment from Treasury and backing from senior ministers, experts have said – Photo credit: PA

The long-delayed strategy, which was launched yesterday at the Reform annual conference in London, sets out plans to change government services and systems “at pace and scale”.

It aims to build on the 2012 digital strategy, driven by former minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude and Government Digital Service founder Mike Bracken, by focusing not only on digital services, but also on radically improving government’s back-end systems.

It also sets out plans to increase use of data, create a more collaborative culture between policy, digital and operations within Whitehall and boost civil servant skills training.

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Speaking at the launch, minister for the Cabinet Office Ben Gummer said that the interface between the government and the people had become “increasingly fraught” – particularly since the UK’s vote to leave the European Union.

The broad transformation targeted in the strategy aims to help create a more open and trustworthy government that better serves the public, he said.

However, although Gummer said it was prime minister Theresa May’s “mission to restore trust in the way government works with the people”, experts have said that this senior support has not been clear enough.

“There’s nothing from the prime minster or the chancellor on this, and if you’re going to get departments to accept central standards, you really need senior ministers to get behind it,” said Daniel Thornton, programme director at the Institute for Government. “There’s no sign of that at this stage.”

“The strategy doesn’t confront the big question on Brexit.”

David Walker, former managing director of public reporting at the Audit Commission, echoed this sentiment, saying that it must be “very disappointing” for Gummer and his team that the strategy had failed to register with the mainstream media amid the noise of Brexit and concerns about the NHS.

“You need high level political leadership to make a splash – and to carry the strategy through,” he said. “Digital needs a Francis Maude, who, however rebarbative, was a big beast.”

Walker also said that the strategy – although it mentions the EU referendum – “doesn’t confront the big question” on Brexit.

“If we are to control the UK borders, if immigration is to be controlled, new and elaborate systems of registration will be needed and they will push on the digital frontier,” he said. “They will be immensely challenging in a political sense but potentially a fruitful source of forward movement. Some discussion of that paradox would have been welcome.”

The right rhetoric

Despite these criticisms, the strategy’s overall approach and tone has been broadly welcomed, with Thornton describing it as a “serious piece of work that provides a good rationale for the transformation that’s required”.

Meanwhile, Matthew Trimming – founder of market entry specialists META and a former advisor to the Government Digital Service – told PublicTechnology it was “an appropriate and significant evolution” of the 2012 digital strategy.

“It rightly positions digital, the work of GDS and those in departments, as an enabler of large-scale public service reform between now and 2020,” Trimming said.

Both he and Thornton emphasised the importance of the strategy gaining sustained investment from the Treasury if the strategy is to succeed, with Trimming adding that another major factor in success would be effective collaboration and data-sharing between the departments.

This data-sharing will rely on “real leadership” from the chief data officer that was announced in the strategy, Trimming said – something that was also picked up on social media.

The Open Data Institute tweeted that it was looking forward to working with the new chief data officer, and that there was “lots more work to do” on data use across both central and local government.

Hetan Shah, the executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, also praised the government on Twitter, saying there was “lots of very good stuff about better use of government data” in the strategy – but that the “proof will be in the pudding”.

However, speaking at the Reform conference, Alison Wolf, a professor of public sector management at King’s College London, sounded a note of caution against an over-emphasis on digital and technology.

“It’s dangerous to think about serving the public and delivering effective government as being driven by digital,” she said, arguing that digital should only ever be a “partial tool” used in combination with an understanding of user needs.


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