Will Brexit slow down public sector digital transformation?

At a recent roundtable event, PublicTechnology and Gamma brought together a range of senior digital professionals to discuss the looming spectre of the UK’s exit from the EU, and what it means for transformation initiatives

Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

Over the last five years, the public sector has been rife with a number of huge digital transformation initiatives; some of which have resulted in new organisations being established, others have meant complete changes to how big departments operate. 

Technology has been a big part of this shift, and the next wave of transformation – powered by automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence – could reshape public service from top-to-bottom, and revamp now only how citizen services are designed and delivered but also the policy that informs them. 

But could this momentum – at least in the UK – come crashing to a halt as a result of Brexit?

This was the topic under discussion at an exclusive roundtable discussion hosted by PublicTechnology and Gamma, in which senior representatives from across the public sector discussed the challenges facing digital transformation and how they might be overcome. 

“Brexit isn’t stopping digital transformation projects – it is still happening, but it is down to priorities.”
Sam Winterbottom, Gamma

One of the key public sector organisations faced with these challenging times is the Government Digital Service within the Cabinet Office. The organisation is involved in various Brexit-related workstreams, including supporting multi-departmental efforts to design and deliver border IT systems.

Such work forms part of GDS’s remit to help to plug gaps where other departments are struggling – perhaps with time constraints and budgets. 

A central part of GDS’s work has always been service assessments: a comprehensive – and time-consuming – review of new digital services. A senior digital professional who attended the roundtable indicated that, given the narrow timescales involved in EU exit, all parties are working to expedite this process for EU exit.

“There has to be compromises in approaches between departments, in the interest of the country, to move things along,” they said.

Another attendee of the roundtable agreed that the timing of Brexit has actually meant some things have been sped up – in a positive way. 

“We’re finding there are a lot more activities that need to be undertaken to exit the EU, so there are new things to be procured and, because of that, it has helped the transformation approach as well; as organisations are asking how will this fit in with what we’re currently doing and how do we speed some of these things up,” he said. 

The government’s aggregated hosting framework – Crown Hosting – has reportedly seen a lot of demand as it enables departments to do things quickly to free up time and has helped to drive a quicker approach to transformation. 

Co-operation, collaboration and co-existing
Roundtable participants agreed that, in the last few months, there has been more of an openness between departments to discuss strategy and normal day-to-day pressures. 

Siobhan Coughlan, programme manager at the Local Government Association (LGA) explained that there is an in-built tension between central government departments that are designed to serve their ministers and other public sector organisations like local councils and NHS trusts that focus on serving their citizens or patients.

This does not mean that central government and local government have not been able to co-operate however; Coughlan said that when there is an acknowledged common challenge it becomes easier to work together. 

“For example, with HSCN (the Health and Social Care Network), the Department of Health and NHS Digital did involve councils, the telco industry and a whole range of wider public and private sector users, as this government private network enabled pharmacists, dentists, GPs and optometrists to share information, and this meant we all worked together around that particular challenge – it’s easier to get people around the table to do that, but doesn’t necessarily result in everyone getting exactly what they want,” she says.

Gamma is now an accredited HSCN supplier and Sam Winterbottom, the company’s head of public sector, said that commercial partners benefited from being involved at an early stage of discussions.

“Helping to feed back as to what worked and what didn’t work was quite refreshing from our side of things,” he said. “It was a great example in terms of working together – particularly when it came to communicating and dialogue.”

Winterbottom added that, in addition to government and its suppliers, it is crucial that the public is also on board with digital transformation initiatives.

“You have to have the right people on board to make it work, and also discover what would make citizens and services users’ lives better as well,” he said.

The unknown
Collaborating is helpful at a time when there are pressures on time and budget; however, there is still a great deal of uncertainty around Brexit and its implications.

Coughlan said that Brexit will speed some things up but slow other things down because there are challenges which are still unknown – for example how it might impact on the thresholds for public procurement.

“In human history, when it comes to technology, innovation almost always occurs at periods of crisis, uncertainty and adversity.”
 Dylan Thomas, Department for International Trade

“There will be challenges which we know about, for example, around the ports and border control and this will then lead to further challenges for those councils where there is a key port, for example the impact on traffic and local businesses, and at the same time businesses will be having to deal with getting goods to their factories to get products or cars built, and this will have a knock-on effect on these local economies – it’s almost too big to think about from an individual basis,” she said.

As the discussion drew towards a close, Winterbottom from Gamma said that: “I’m pleased Brexit isn’t stopping digital transformation projects – it is still happening, but it is down to priorities.”

Dylan Thomas, deputy director of technology, entrepreneurship and advanced manufacturing at the Department for International Trade, concluded the gathering on a positive note: 

“In human history, when it comes to technology, innovation almost always occurs at periods of crisis, uncertainty and adversity,” he said. 

It’s time for the government as a whole to collaborate, prioritise and innovate, in order to make sure digital transformation efforts will withstand the challenge of Brexit.

Sam Trendall

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