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Government must take charge if transformation strategy is to succeed

Experts agree the government’s much anticipated transformation strategy is ambitious and on the right path, but needs strong leadership to be achieved

The long delayed and awaited government transformation strategy, which was launched on 9 February 2017 by Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer, aims to “change the relationship” between the government and the public.  

Its intention is 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.

It is an ambitious target, and is certainly on the right track, but the strategy needs to follow through on its promises, say experts.

The transformation strategy focuses on a set of key priorities to achieve by 2020 – it will deliver and design “joined-up, end-to-end services”, along with “major transformation programmes” and a whole-government approach to transformation.

Julian David, CEO of industry body techUK, said the strategy is right in focusing on skills, information sharing and end-to-end transformation, but that the challenge lies “in the execution”.

“The imperative to change isn’t just about technologies, it’s about the people who deliver them and use them,” he said. “That’s why it’s encouraging to see such a determined focus on equipping civil servants with the leadership, skills and support they need for the challenge ahead.”

He added that the government “must be willing to experiment with new transformational approaches, and harness a competitive supplier landscape in doing so”.

Team effort

The strategy also set out clear goals for moving away from large, monolithic IT contracts, but added that it “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 said it would “continue to build a shared understanding” of the technology currently in use – how it is bought and supported.

Mark Cresswell, CEO of LzLabs, said if the government is serious about breaking down silos in enterprise IT, it must “address the issue of legacy mainframe technology, which holds many organisations back from modernisation”.

“Many of the UK’s largest institutions are running business-critical back-end systems that were designed in the 1960s and, due to the serious and fast-growing mainframe skills gap, the public sector would be wise to wake up to this impending crisis, when so many people are dependent on the continuation of these services,” he said.

Launching the strategy, Gummer said he wants 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”. 

According to Gummer, the strategy is not just about savings, but an important part of restoring public faith in government and in democracy.

Director general of the Government Digital Service (GDS) Kevin Cunnington said the strategy is the result of a huge team effort. “This strategy charts the direction of the digitally-enabled transformation of government – in how we work, how we organise ourselves and how we serve our citizens,” he said.

“It’s been designed to be carried out at pace and scale – to deliver meaningful change to the people who need it most, faster and more efficiently. We’ve been ambitious in the breadth and scope of this strategy. Collaboration across government will not always be simple. However, we’re confident that government is aligned in its digital ambition.”

Strong leadership required

An overhaul of the civil service is far from an easy feat. As Elwyn Jones, senior vice-president for central government at CGI, points out, while things are “still very much in their infancy in places”, it’s good to have clear objectives.

“The true value of digital transformation is around planning to address value creation from the outset, and this applies to government, so to see a clear direction enforces positive steps around the strengthening of its digital capabilities,” said Jones.

However, not everyone believes the government currently has the right leadership skills in place to tackle such a wholesale transformation. Phil Gibson, chairman of Innopsis, said that while the sentiment is well and good, the strategy “falls short”.

“The news is not full of stories of people struggling to complete their tax returns, get a driving licence or claim their Universal Credit, and yet GDS’s focus seems to be all around the forms we fill in when dealing with central government,” he said.  

Gibson added that the Cabinet Office “needs to recognise that there is currently no leadership for a cohesive technology-led programme that addresses the desperate need for better, safer information between the agencies”.

“That would serve the people, and our budget deficit, more effectively than a smart way to apply for a passport.”

Local government plays key role

While the strategy is focused on central government, many objectives in the plan require the involvement of local government and the private sector.

It may be a plan to transform Whitehall, but a wholesale transformation of public services most certainly affects all parts of government.

Whitehall’s plan to have 25 million users of its identity assurance platform Gov.uk Verify by the end of 2020, for instance, would not only require getting the large departments on board, but also local councils.

To that effect, the government has begun to run several pilots with local councils and private sector services to establish their needs for the service. 

Camden’s Labour councillor and cabinet member for finance technology and growth, Theo Blackwell, said the strategy provides “an exciting opportunity to promote digital transformation not just in Whitehall but in town halls”.

“The strategy leaves the door open for that; if there isn’t more on local government it’s because local government hasn’t spoken with one voice,” he said.

“If 2017 is the year where this happens then we will see the start of a tremendous transformation of public services driven by councils already doing big work around data, identity, the internet of things (IoT) and automation.”

He added that it’s up to local government to get involved and “do the shaping”.

Towards the future

While the strategy focuses on goals to be achieved by 2020, the government is also planning for beyond that time frame.

“We will ensure the work under this strategy continues to align with the way that new technologies are disrupting other industries, for example the significant shifts in transport, such as drones, driverless cars and advances in rail technology,” the strategy said.

GDS boss Cunnington added that 2020 is “not the finish line”. “The work we want to do should be a foundation for the digital government of the future: a government that is readily adaptable, and able to keep pace with technical change and evolution,” he said. 

Read more about the government’s digital strategy

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