A lack of benchmarking data on digital transformation programmes in government makes it hard to evaluate success at a time when it has ever been more important, says Jane Roberts, strategy director at TopLevel.
The government needs to make sure it has something to measure itself against on digital transformation – Photo credit: Pixabay
Digital projects have a reputation for running away with costs. But with a growing reliance on digital and technology to drive forward cross-government reforms, being able to track progress will become increasingly important.
The government’s recent transformation strategy is an ambitious one, which aims to sweep away the artificial constructs and confines of ownership over digital.
The strategy refers to the need for better use of data, reusable shared resources and cross-departmental digital services that “span multiple central government bodies, local authorities, devolved administrations, the third sector or outsourced services”.
It’s hard to fault the document’s lofty aims, but where it falls down is in its ability to back them up with some cold hard numbers.
In his analysis of the strategy, Daniel Thornton of the think tank the Institute for Government laments – among other things – a failure to identify clear priorities and trade-offs, little explanation of how resources will be allocated and a lack of measurable baselines.
“A good strategy can be measured against where things stand now,” he says. “In this case, government needs to know how many services it currently provides, how many are digital (that meet quality standards), and how many will be transformed by 2020. But there is no list of central government services.”
A lack of benchmark data on how far digitalisation has progressed makes it extremely difficult to establish success to date, at a time when being able to keep tabs on transformation is going to be an ever-more important issue.
The strategy is effectively asking departments to combine and share resources, and that means sharing their budget. It may even see one department paying for a service that another department uses without any investment.
While this makes sense from a digital perspective it’s likely to stick in the craw of those paying the bill, particularly given the insinuation that those with more mature service offerings are going to have to pull their brethren up to their level.
There are also questions over how to measure the success of transformation projects given the variety of scope and size of the programmes underway in government – something raised by National Audit Office director Max Tse at a conference in London last month.
And the renewed emphasis on making policy and development co-dependent – while a sensible interpretation of the agile approach – will make it even more difficult to ascertain whether a project has achieved an objective that may well have changed during the course of the project.
In the absence of past metrics and future forecasts, there are some substantial caveats that must be applied to the government’s efforts to push ahead with large-scale transformations.
First, there needs to be a much more widespread adoption of public cloud services to facilitate data sharing. The launch of UK datacentres by AWS, Microsoft and IBM should help facilitate this, finally providing government departments with the assurance of data sovereignty and providing economy of scale.
Thus far, migration of data to the cloud has been slow, but hopefully the abolition of the Public Service Network will drive up adoption.
Second, the optimisation of services needs to be addressed more comprehensively. While optimisation budgets are mandatory, they are often be pillaged to cover other project costs. Without money in the coffers, services may quickly date while departments perform the much-needed work on digitalising their backend processes.
Third, services need to become more data-driven, rather than simply being user-focused, so that they are department agnostic. Value can then be realised through sharing information more widely, eradicating overlap or duplication of effort.
This in turn will help digital projects deliver a better return over time. IT can be used to reduce costs but in order to so it has to realise efficiency gains and use economies of scale.
Fourth, the government needs to realise that technology is the enabler that will empower the people its new strategy focuses on.
The Digital Academy – which has now come under the control of the Government Digital Service – will train 3,000 civil servants a year, but that pales into insignificance when you consider that there are approximately 420,000 civil servants in government today.
Why not empower all of them? If projects adopt sympathetic technologies that require minimal coding, more can participate in the transformation process and their involvement will ensure success.
However, in our critiques of the Government Transformation Strategy it should be remembered that it is exactly that: a strategy. It’s not a framework or manifesto. Its role is to inspire, inform and give an indication of future expectation, and in that regard it’s not a roadmap for transformation.
But transformation needs to do more than provide us with a vision of an ideal future. The government also needs to be accountable, and its mission clear. The current lack of transparency can only endanger that vision.