Digital government in the UK – fewer platitudes please, more evidence of action

SUMMARY:

Digital government in Whitehall got an easy ride in 2017. But as we start the new year, it’s becoming clear that those in charge need to be held to account.

time-for-changeThe Government Digital Service, the Crown Commercial Service, Ministers heading up the digital government agenda and senior civil servants need to stop dishing out over-used platitudes that have been heard many times before and start providing evidence of action being taken that highlights how change is being driven.

The past two years have seen significant disruption for the digital agenda in Whitehall, with changes in leadership within GDS, multiple Ministers being handed responsibility for the brief and rumours of conflicts between the central body and CCS, as well as other departments.

We at diginomica/government forgave some of the lack of ambition during 2017, to give new heads of delivery a chance to settle in and take the helm. However, as Brexit looms and as it is becoming increasingly obvious that very little insight is being provided into how GDS will spend its £450 million budget, a harsher stance needs to be taken.

It’s also been over a year since the hugely anticipated Transformation Strategy was launched, to very mixed reviews, and yet we have seen very little evidence of some of the key pillars of the document being delivered.

And to add to all of the above, I’m continuing to hear rumours about growing fractions between GDS and CCS (despite public pleasantries) – and that there are power games at play over who will take responsibility for big ticket items, such as the Digital Marketplace. But more on that later.

This post has been prompted by two public speeches this week. One from chief executive of the civil service, John Manzoni. And the other by Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Matt Hancock.

Both speeches echoed well-worn sentiments that have been touted across Whitehall for the past two years and there was nothing of substance to speak of. It’s becoming incredibly frustrating.

Manzoni’s speech focused on the transformation of Whitehall, citing three main components of what government needs to achieve: how it works, where it works and the expertise it brings to bear on its work. Here are some of the key quotes:

We have to collaborate more – because citizens expect government to be joined up around what they, the customers, want. We must make full use of technology and data to modernise the design and delivery of services, and to inform more robust policies that meet people’s real needs.

And:

Throughout the UK, we need modern, flexible workplaces that encourage us to work differently: sharing space with other departments, making it easier to work across boundaries, with a regional and local focus, and giving our people the most up-to date equipment for the job. Because ‘smart working’ is about maximising the potential of IT and more adaptable use of premises.

And:

Greater diversity and inclusion are an important part of this. We have set an ambition to be the most inclusive employer in the UK by 2020, which will help to give us the talented individuals we need – with all their contrasting experiences and insights – and the supportive environment in which to fulfil their potential.

All of these are great sentiments, but the evidence to support them is what we’ve been hearing for months now. For example, common standards, the Digital Academy, breaking up large outsourcing contracts, rethinking the civil service profession – all important, but nothing we didn’t know already.

Equally, Matt Hancock’s speech was practically devoid of anything meaningful. Here are some select highlights:

Technology is constantly changing how we live, how we work and how we vote and campaign.

Groundbreaking stuff. And:

Our award winning Government Digital Service set the standard for usability online, which was then replicated by other governments across the world.

It transformed the relationship between citizen and state, whilst the digitisation of government has saved billions for taxpayers.

The lesson was loud and clear – put the user journey first and encourage people to adopt technology that will make their lives easier.

Now the task is the next generation of emerging technologies, like the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and Blockchain.

And:

My second proposition is that economies that make sure regulations are fit for the digital age will also thrive.

Digital transformation cannot take place with outdated legislation, written when if you wanted to tackle ‘trolls’ you’d need to look underneath a bridge.

All of these comments are so top level that they’re almost not even worth repeating. The British government is at a really pivotal moment in history, with regards to the changes required by Brexit, and the Secretary of State responsible for digital is essentially just dishing out some soundbites that could have been written by any junior executive working in B2B tech.

What do we want to hear?

The above may sound harsh, given that there has been significant progress in digital government in Whitehall since 2011 – and the UK still ranks very highly in global indexes – but there is a distinct feeling that there is no longer the urgency there that there once was.

Strong leadership, bold policies and transparency around the change being driven is essential. I’ve gone from speaking to GDS on a semi regular basis to essentially hearing nothing out of the Cabinet Office apart from some trivial blog posts that are published on its website. I’m not the only one that feels that digital government has lost its way – this post is based off of several conversations I’ve had with people working on the challenges in government.

So what do we need? Here are some of the key things on my wish list:

  • Leadership – As mentioned already, GDS has seen a number of leadership changes in recent years. The current Director General and head of the department, Kevin Cunnington, has been very quiet in terms of public advocacy for the digital agenda. He has produced a few blog posts in his time, but we aren’t seeing the same drive that we saw with previous leaders, which is worrying. Equally, the brief within the Cabinet Office has been handed to four different Ministers over the past two years. The most recent Minister, Caroline Noakes, last just six months. The latest Minister, Oliver Dowden, is a relative unknown junior. What we need is for a Minister to stick with the brief for a long period and drive the political agenda across Whitehall.
  • Digital Marketplace – It was recently revealed that the G-Cloud 10 framework was going to be put on hold for a year, as CCS and GDS try to build a new Digital Marketplace platform. This goes against the principles of the G-Cloud, which was meant to be updated every six months, allowing new suppliers and innovation to be introduced. It means a new framework won’t have gone live for two years, which is a long time in the technology world. Equally, I’ve been told that CCS is making a power play to take G-Cloud away from GDS. We have also heard very little about what this new platform for the Digital Marketplace will look like. What is the agenda here? The UK led the way with innovative procurement practices for the digital age and it needs to not let that go to waste.
  • Data – In recent years GDS has spoken about the need to clean and reorganise the data held in Whitehall into canonical registers, authoritative lists that will enable for new services to be built on top and to better enable Whitehall departments to collaborate and share information. Early details were given about what registers were being prioritised, but we have no clearer insight into where this is going or how they’re being used. Leadership changes again have been a factor, but it just doesn’t seem to be a priority at the moment – and as we know, getting the data agenda right is critical.
  • Brexit – GDS recently advertised for a new head of Brexit within the department, whom will head up a small, newly formed team to help guide Whitehall through the digital challenges of exiting the EU trading bloc. But advertising this role almost 2 years after the referendum and just a year shy of the March 2019 deadline doesn’t exactly fill us with confidence. GDS has said that Brexit could be a huge opportunity for digital government, but we haven’t had any details on how this could be the case or what the plan is. We need a strategy and evidence of what’s being done.
  • Government-as-a-Platform – A couple of years ago, GaaP was all GDS could talk about. The plans were bold, to make use of common services that could be integrated and used across government. And some services have been built – Verify, Notify, Pay. However, Verify seems to be dwindling and there is no real evidence of whether or not it is effective. And plans that were in place to create a reverse auction platform for services for government seem to now be non-existent. Where is this going? What does GaaP look like for government now? What’s the plan? I’m no clearer than I was two years ago when it was first being discussed.
  • Next generation technologies – Matt Hancock loves to cite new and emerging technologies, such as the Internet of Things, AI and Blockchain, but we do not really know what the plan is for these in Whitehall and for citizen services. We’ve been given some top level stuff about funding and new organisations to lead these, but what does that look like in reality? Resources and strategy need to be explicitly outlined, so that outcomes are measurable.

My take

This is by no means a comprehensive list and I’m sure others reading will have more to add. However, my main objective is to highlight that digital government in the UK – whilst having made huge strides in recent years – is faltering. We at diginomica/government have always been big advocates of GDS and the strategies that have been introduced, because they seemed to be driving change that was so very needed. However, I can’t remember the last time I had an interesting conversation with someone at GDS that instilled me with confidence that this was going to be a success. The approach seems to be lock down, shut up and hope that no one notices. We need action and we need it now. And those in charge need to rise to the challenge and recognise that this is an opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted.

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