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Government digital transformation strategy promises to ‘serve’ its people

Long-awaited strategy aims to change the way government departments and services work though digital technology

Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer has launched the government’s digital transformation strategy, which aims to “change the relationship” between the government and the public.

The much-delayed strategy is intended to “take digital transformation further than ever before” by prioritising an overhaul of the civil service, developing skills and culture, using shared platforms, changing back-office processes and systems, and increasing collaboration. 

The government has three core areas of cross-government priorities to achieve by 2020. It says it will deliver and design “joined-up, end-to-end services” and deliver “major transformation programmes” and a whole-government approach to transformation.

The strategy also promises to build a framework for how to deliver this transformation, focused increasingly on common platforms and knowledge sharing, driven by the Government Digital Service (GDS).

“To make it quick, cheap and easy to assemble digital services and to provide a consistent experience for users across all government services, we will build more reusable, shared components and platforms,” the strategy document said.

This is much in line with the work GDS has been doing for the past few years, as well as the government’s commitment to get rid of large, monolithic IT contracts.

However, the strategy said that moving away from large, outsourced IT contracts “does not solve the problem of legacy technology”, which might pose challenges to integrate with new systems and might cost more to support than to replace.

To deal with this issue, the government says it will “continue to build a shared understanding” of the technology currently in use, how it is bought and supported.

The strategy was first due to be released in December 2015, outlining how the GDS was planning to spend the £450m awarded to it in the November 2015 Spending Review.

But it was then delayed several times, including due to the June 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU), and again after GDS director general Kevin Cunnington was appointed last summer.  

Cunnington promised that the strategy would be released before Christmas, but sources later suggested that Number 10 did not want to be perceived as “rushing out” such a critical announcement during the holiday season, further delaying its publication

Broader transformation

Launching the strategy at the Reform conference in London today, Gummer said the strategy outlined the commitment to “reshape government by ensuring millions of people are able to access online services they need, whenever they need”.

“I want to see a revolution in the way we deliver public services – so that people up and down our country feel that government is at their service at every single stage in the journey,” he said. 

The strategy has also gone through significant changes since its earlier iterations. Originally billed as simply a “digital strategy”, it has now become a “transformation strategy”.

The need to change back-office processes has long been apparent in government. In December 2016, Computer Weekly published details from another document, Government Transformation Strategy detail: Background, which outlined the need to change back-office processes in government. The strategy published today said that although the GDS digital exemplars “delivered excellent web interfaces that better met user needs”, back-office processes were often unchanged.  

Read more about the government transformation strategy

In some cases, the online service passes the contents of a web form to back-office staff, who must then rekey the data into an existing system. In others, the online process has been grafted onto legacy technology that does not fully realise the value of digital technology.

The plan also highlights the fact that the UK’s vote to leave the EU has brought into focus that the “digital challenge is not simply about online interactions – but fundamentally about how departments operate on the inside”.

The document said: “Following the vote to leave the EU, the need for government and the wider public sector to be agile and responsive to a changed environment across (or sometimes redefining) existing departmental boundaries has become even more important.”

To get government departments on board with the transformation, GDS will work with them to develop the civil service functional model for digital. This includes growing leadership and technical skills and expertise across departments, and establishing a pay strategy and framework for specialist roles.

Scaling up Gov.uk Verify

As Computer Weekly reported last November, GDS is aiming for 25 million users of its Gov.uk Verify identity assurance platform by 2020. 

The government is beginning to run several pilots with local councils and private sector services to establish their needs for the service. 

But to reach its 25 million user target, the government would need to get large departments on board, such as HM Revenue and Customs’ (HMRC’s) self-assessment and digital tax services and the universal credit welfare system run by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Both departments have reportedly been reluctant to adopt the service, with HMRC developing its own identity verification service based on the existing Government Gateway, and DWP initially reluctant to adopt Verify – although it is now using it in its new, digital version of universal credit.

Other common platforms created by GDS, such as Gov.uk Pay and Gov.uk Notify, will also be scaled up. The government aims to work with the fintech sector to use Gov.uk Pay as a “catalyst for the development and adoption of new methods of payment”.

As already reported by Computer Weekly, the government will also recruit a new chief data officer “to lead on use of data”.

It says it will also set up a new Data Advisory Board to “align efforts to make best use of data across government, which will oversee a number of examples of better use of data and areas where we can build momentum”.

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