As a new government looms closer – and technology so embedded in public services – parties should test the tech ramifications of their proposals, according to former Cabinet Office official Clayton Smith
By this time next year, we will either have a new government in place or be weeks away from getting a new one.
A key part of any election campaign is the testing of policy from a fiscal and political perspective to ensure it is deliverable. While it would be unheard of now to propose policy without these tests, it is time to bring the same level of scrutiny to a third underappreciated but critical area for policy execution: that of digital deliverability.
Digital deliverability matters because today data, technology and digital are the machinery of government.
The products and services supported by Government Digital Service are used by 13 million people each week and 1,900 public sector organisations. Digital capability and data handling are critical to the functioning and service delivery of every government department, agency or arm’s-length body. A government which is serious about policy delivery has to be serious about understanding the extent to which it is deliverable in this context.
In my time in the civil service, I witnessed an abundance of fantastic ideas which would improve services, save money and make for better, joined-up experiences of government but there were occasions when good work was stymied by a blind spot around its digital deliverability. When there was a failure it could typically be traced back to five problem areas.
The first of these is a failure to fully appreciate the challenges and context in which people use government services – whether these are internal or external services. This is partly down to misplaced assumptions coming from a lack of diversity in thought, background and life experience. It is also down to a lack of – or inadequate – user research when a policy idea is fleshed out.
“The digital viability of policies is not a mere technicality. It is a fundamental aspect that, if neglected, can compromise the effectiveness and impact of government initiatives”
A second problem area is where policy initiatives are developed without full recognition of the dependencies with other departments or agencies which are critical to project success. It is rare now to find a policy initiative whose success will not be influenced by the data, technology, capability and capacity of another team or part of government.
And here policymakers must understand a third potential blocker, which is the rarity of teams working outside of silos to solve problems. Fostering collaboration and a product/long-term mindset requires trust and a sense that there is a commitment to a policy being delivered. This is hard to achieve in an environment of constant change.
Importing “consumer expectations” of how a service might work in an environment which is dominated by complexity creates further barriers to deliver was a fourth common issue at GDS.
Last of all, a failure to ask questions about deliverability until it is too late – or when the true scale of challenges is brought to light through project delivery – is another constraint to success, as the required course-correction becomes too challenging.
The cost of progressing initiatives which aren’t digitally deliverable shouldn’t be seen solely through a financial lens. The wasted time, political capital and opportunity cost are equally important. So too is the impact this has on end users who have to live with legacy services which don’t meet their needs and among politicians and civil servants whose risk-aversion grows.
If there is one thing we can safely predict after the next election, it is that the role for tools such as AI, machine learning and automation will grow in the public sector. This means the ability to test policy for digital deliverability will become even greater. To achieve this, there are some simple steps required now.
The first is to support policy teams to understand the technology environment in government and its agencies, the key issues that can constrain delivery – data sharing and ageing infrastructure – and what is required to improve delivery.
The second is to scrutinise policy in the light of these constraints, rooting out assumptions and testing ideas early so the true scope of cost, time and people resource is clearer before a policy idea sees light of day.
In the same way that some of the reporting from the Covid Inquiry has exposed how groupthink and a lack of appreciation for how people of different backgrounds undermined policy making, user-led policy design would help improve the digital deliverability of policies.
A newly formed government serious about delivery may consider ensuring senior leaders who understand the role of technology and data in government are able to meaningfully influence policy and might usefully look at the make-up of the ministerial private offices who play a critical role in ensuring policy is translated to delivery.
Finally, there is the issue of how we can do a better job of ensuring ministers – newly minted and more experienced ones – understand the opportunities and role of digital in the public sector generally and in public-service delivery specifically.
The digital viability of policies is not a mere technicality. It is a fundamental aspect that, if neglected, can compromise the effectiveness and impact of government initiatives. As the political landscape evolves, embracing a user/digital-first mindset will be indispensable for shaping policies that truly meet the needs of citizens and stand the test of digital deliverability.
Clayton Smith (pictured above) is managing director of consultancy Zaizi. Up until earlier this year he was deputy director, digital delivery at the Cabinet Office