Rob Driver of techUK looks at the big questions facing the government as it approaches the halfway point of its big-ticket digital and data plan
Published 16 months ago – having been in the works for more than a year before that – the 93 pages of the Government Transformation Strategy were designed to serve as a playbook for creating a better government, delivering better services to citizens.
The document covered five key focus areas: business transformation; people, skills, and culture; tools; tools, processes, and governance; better use of data; and platforms, components, and business capabilities.
Across this quintet of workstreams, the government had four overarching goals: to improve services by using digital platforms; to better use data in policymaking; to cultivate equality in the civil service; and create efficiencies.
Within all this there were scores of individual ideas and plans, covering a three-year period up to 2020. As we approach the halfway point of its agenda, the strategy is still invoked, discussed, and analysed – by both those within and without Whitehall – as often now as it was during the long wait for its publication.
In the private sector the pace of change is ever accelerating, and if government is to take advantage of exciting developments in the likes of artificial intelligence, it will need to procure in a quicker and more nimble manner
But just how much progress has been made – and is the government progressing down the right path?
In a first of an occasional series, wherein the sector experts at techUK take a closer look at the key issues affecting public sector digital, the technology industry body’s head of public sector Rob Driver answers the big questions facing the Government Transformation Strategy.
What should Government’s priorities be to deliver the key commitments of the Government Transformation Strategy by 2020?
The Government Transformation Strategy is an ambitious plan to change the way that government delivers public services to make them more joined-up and responsive to citizens’ needs, but it has endured a difficult first year. Besides last May’s general election and the ever-growing demands of Brexit, there have been three different junior ministers with responsibility for GDS, and the Minister for the Cabinet Office has been replaced twice since Ben Gummer wrote the strategy’s foreword last February.
If the government is to realise these ambitions in such a challenging context, it will need to be flexible, and move from designing complex, bespoke systems to procuring off-the-shelf, reusable solutions wherever possible, saving precious time and money in the process.
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Good progress has been made here, with the expansion of cross-government communities, better data on service use, and the creation of standards that promote interoperability and reuse all helping organisations from public and private sectors to collaborate more effectively to deliver joined-up services.
But the vision for end-to-end transformation requires a step-change in the scale and pace of delivery to what we have seen so far, and government will need to leverage the full spectrum of solutions offered by the UK’s thriving tech sector to achieve it.
Here, progress is mixed. Only one in five civil servants told techUK that they felt there was an appetite within their organisation for getting more SMEs involved in providing public services – a fall on the previous year – despite a target for £1 in £3 spent from the public purse to go to SMEs.
Encouraging public servants to continue to embrace innovation and change will be key to deliver the transformation strategy, and there have been clear successes such as the use of the G- Cloud framework across the public sector, with a majority of GovTech SMEs telling techUK that they view the framework as being useful for smaller companies to access the public sector market.
However, government must speed up the process of engaging with SMEs by facilitating ongoing engagement with the tech sector throughout the procurement process.
How prepared are government departments to deliver the Government Transformation Strategy vision?
Digital skills will be key to delivering public service transformation.
However, the shortage of skills and capabilities is regarded as the largest barrier to tech adoption in government, with 57% of respondents of techUK’s Civil Servants Survey seeing it as a problem. While there is some good work being done on public-service transformation, and civil servants are beginning to adapt to more agile and innovative ways of working, progress has by no means been uniform. Efforts must be made to address organisational silos and find ways to share experience and best practice – the GDS Academy has delivered some impressive work in this area, having trained up thousands of civil servants with digital skills and capability.
The strategy has endured a difficult first year. Besides last May’s general election and the ever-growing demands of Brexit, there have been three different junior ministers with responsibility for GDS, and the Minister for the Cabinet Office has been replaced twice since Ben Gummer wrote the foreword
The main challenge is to scale work across government, which will mean addressing cultural barriers where departments believe their practices are unique or incompatible with other organisations. Where possible, the Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) profession should support collaboration between individual departments and the wider public sector.
Health, social care, education and local government are all key players in service provision and more needs to be done to involve the tech leaders across public services in the transformation work going on within central government.
However, it’s equally important that links are built between DDaT professionals and their colleagues in other parts of the civil service. Transformational public services need to be digital in design, not just in delivery, and it’s vital that civil servants of all professions and levels of seniority understand the value that technology can bring to public services.
What are the emerging priorities for Government transformation for 2020 onwards, and how can the UK tech industry inform the development and delivery of these priorities?
With rising demographic pressures placing strain on already squeezed budgets, and government grappling with the huge challenge of Brexit, the imperative to transform the UK’s public services to be smarter, better, and more efficient has never been greater.
In the private sector the pace of change is ever accelerating, and if government is to take advantage of exciting developments in the likes of artificial intelligence, it will need to procure in a quicker and more nimble manner.
The recently announced GovTech Catalyst programme is an encouraging development, providing a mechanism and funding for truly cutting-edge solutions to challenges faced by civil servants. This provides government with not only the opportunity to lead innovation rather than follow it, but also to demonstrate to the market that it has the capability to procure and scale emerging solutions quickly.