Government promises ‘deep transformation’ in long-awaited strategy

Written by Rebecca Hill on 9 February 2017 in News

The government’s transformation strategy has set out plans to fix back-end systems, boost the use of data and encourage culture change within Whitehall.

Ben Gummer launched the strategy today at the Reform annual conference - Photo credit: PA

The minister for the Cabinet Office Ben Gummer launched the much-delayed strategy at the annual Reform conference today, saying that the “heart of transformation” was in using digital to change the way government works.

The government, he said, has four broad aims for this transformation: to use digital government to deliver better public services; to harness the value of data for better policymaking; to ensure equality within the civil service; and drive further efficiencies within the government.

The strategy calls for greater collaboration across government departments – with policy and service design brought closer together – and to offer the public a “more coherent experience” when interacting with services.

In addition, it emphasises the importance of fixing the legacy systems that government uses – on top of delivering better public services – something Gummer referred to as “deep transformation”.

This might deliver different savings that the 2012 digital strategy did, he said, because a lot of the “low hanging fruit has been picked”.

However, much of Gummer’s speech aimed to emphasise that these reforms were necessary for both better public services and to allow civil servants to do their jobs effectively.

Civil servants currently work in “appallingly antiquated buildings”, under excessively hierarchical structures and with “what can be generously called suboptimal tech”, he said.

‘Whole-government transformation’

The 93-page strategy itself sets out five main areas of work: business transformation; people, skills and culture; tools, processes and governance; better use of data; and platforms, components and business capabilities.

Each area has a set of priorities to meet by 2020, with a list of ways in which government hopes to achieve these aims, and picks out key programmes that fall into that category.

The section on business transformation is the largest, coming in at 12 pages, and has three broad priorities: to design and deliver joined up services; deliver major transformation programmes; and establish a whole-government approach to transformation.

However, it stressed that transformation is a “continuous activity” that will involve many complex, long-running programmes that will “take many years to embed”.

It also noted the range of maturity across departments, with the strategy saying many departments without public-facing services have “not benefitted from the same degree of focus on digital transformation”.

Services listed for delivery include the Home Office’s services for coming to live and work in the UK and the Government Digital Service’s flagship identity assurance scheme Verify – which Gummer said should serve 25 million people by 2020.

‘Exiting large contracts won’t solve legacy problem’

The strategy stresses the need for government to design and deliver its own services, with plans to build more reusable, shared components and platforms to make it “quick, cheap and easy to assemble digital services”.

It will also expand the number of APIs available inside and outside government, overhaul the government’s legacy content on GOV.UK.

The strategy also confirms that exiting large, single supplier and multi-year IT contracts remains a priority, saying that it “is a precondition” for the work.

However, it added that “not all old technology is toxic” and that moving away from this type of long-term contract “does not solve the problem of legacy technology”, saying that as soon as any new tech is used it starts to age.

Instead, the government said its aim was to replace legacy systems progressively, by building a shared understanding of the outcomes government is working towards. There also needs to be the right commercial model – that focuses on these shared components and platforms - to deliver the next stage of transformation.

Expanded registers under a chief data officer

The government also announced the creation of the role of a chief data officer, supported by a data advisory board.

That person will supervise open data and policy across government; promote data analytics to departments; research ethics and public trust; and ensure civil servants have the right skills.

Meanwhile, the strategy will push for greater use of data by removing barriers to effective data use, setting up teams of analysts within departments and embedding behavioural insights work. There is also a reference to open government, with the strategy saying that government plans to make it easy for citizens to view and correct data held on them.

The government’s list of registers will also be expanded, with new potential registers including clinical commissioning groups, forensic pathologists and proscribed terrorist groups.

Skills, training and tools

In addition to a push for more data analytics training for both analysts and non-analysts, the strategy calls for more digital skills training for civil servants. There is also a push to change the culture within the civil service so it makes better use of digital.

On top of this, the strategy sets out more details of plans announced by GDS leader Kevin Cunnington to strengthen the professions of digital, data and technology within the civil service.

This will includes a single set of job families and a different pay strategy for central government roles, as well as a drive for culture change.

But, the strategy said, “it is not only culture and training that is important in creating a great place to work”: there is also the need to improve tools, processes and governance.

Priorities within this section include a commitment to creating better, more modern workspaces for civil servants and working with the Crown Commercial Service to create a step-change in procurement that also increases adoption of digital procurement frameworks. 

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