Senior buy-in and real incentives 'urgently needed' to make transformation strategy a success

Written by Rebecca Hill on 14 February 2017 in Opinion

The government's transformation strategy needs buy-in from the political top brass to drive the radical culture change that underpins the plan, writes PublicTechnology editor Rebecca Hill.

The government transformation strategy needs to get the backing of senior ministers and civil servants - Photo credit: PA

With some great fanfare, the government transformation strategy has, at long last, been published.

For those of us who have been waiting for this day since, well, the last time it was promised and delayed, it was always going to be an occasion of some note.

But elsewhere, it was more a case of tumbleweeds blowing by.

Despite a well-drafted and convincingly-presented speech from the minister for the Cabinet Office Ben Gummer, full of grand statements about restoring the public’s trust in government, there was little pick-up in the mainstream media.

Even quieter were Gummer’s political leaders, with prime minister Theresa May and chancellor Philip Hammond - both of whom will be crucial in uniting departments, not to mention in offering financial backing - remaining silent. Not even a retweet could be mustered from their Twitter accounts.

This isn’t as trivial as it might sound: achieving cross-government collaboration is the backbone of the transformation strategy, and both ministers and permanent secretaries will need to be seen to be on board.

That Gummer’s speech emphasised the PM’s backing for broad government reforms indicates he was all too aware of this - but it’s hard to deny that No 10 appears much less interested in digital transformation than it was under David Cameron in the giddy, pre-Brexit era.

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But the Government Digital Service’s mantra has for some years been that the strategy is delivery and - as one source pointed out - the team has traditionally been more interested in producing fully-functional digital services than engaging in soaring rhetoric that gains column inches.

However, this 93-page strategy is packed full of rhetoric (albeit much of it is spot on and bears repeating), with little in the way of clear, or new, deliverables.

More information on the operational plans is expected in the next round of Single Departmental Plans - which will also hopefully come with some budgets attached - but in some ways these operational details will be less important than the culture change that lies beneath the strategy.

This will require leaders to embrace agile working methods; non-digital specialists will be offered “safe spaces” to experiment with digital tools; and digital evangelists will be encouraged to try and think like a policy person might.

Many people in government will have to overhaul their thinking and learn how to fail early and often, and how to make the most of those mistakes.

Such a shift in thinking really is a radical change - especially for the UK’s traditionally siloed and hierarchical departments - and, as the document acknowledges, the culture and behaviours of an organisation “cannot be changed quickly”.

"The strategy needed to set out incentives to push those who are reticent to change into action."

But neither should this be seen as an excuse to take the changes beyond 2020 or to leave it down to chance, as the strategy alludes with a comment about it being an “organic” process.

Although it is right to say that culture change can’t be engineered, there is a need for urgent reforms to public services and the government that provides them.

Budgets remain tight and civil servants’ morale (and salaries) aren’t lurching skywards, with many having to work on antiquated systems that might fall over at a moment’s notice.

Citizens, meanwhile, expect to be able to interact with government in the way they do for services from private providers, while also needing to trust that the government is an organisation capable of securely handling ever increasing volumes of their personal data.

And so the strategy also needed to set out incentives to push those who are reticent to change into action, and offer some concrete plans to promote this change in thinking across government. Sadly, we are left with lacklustre and vague references to ‘training’ and the ‘embedding’ of digital skills within departments.

Hopefully the coming weeks and months will see the expanded Digital Academy thrive, with senior civil servants from all departments signing up, and a concerted effort from government leaders to back up the strategy’s message.

Because without such a push, the practical achievements of the government’s transformation strategy will struggle to reach the same soaring heights as its rhetoric.

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