Report wants government ‘remake’ for digital age

The Policy Exchange think tank calls for more openness and innovation in government digital strategy in a new report

The Policy Exchange think tank today called on more innovation from Whitehall to “remake government for the digital age.”

“Around the world, industry after industry has been turned on its head by the internet and the things that digital technology makes possible,” read a report published today by its digital government unit.

“But when we look back over the last two decades, nowhere has the internet revolution been felt less than in the business of government.”

While the report gave credit to the current administration and the efforts it has made, it claimed it was “only the beginning” and with almost half of public sector staff believing their leaders didn’t understand the technology needed to do jobs well, change was a necessity.

It named two fundamental trends affecting the current decade and how government would need to approach its operations – ubiquitous availability of general purpose digital technologies with a public savvy at using them, and a shift towards openness, both of technology but also society in general.

“The organisations that are already thriving in this new digital age share some important characteristics,” continued the report.

“They leverage technology to enable a smaller number of people to get the job done. They set their sights on doing things better, not just by a little but by a very long way. They work faster, iterating rapidly and using data to guide their decisions. And through openness they build stronger communities to support and promote their activities.”

Policy Exchange made recommendations to the government of how best to embrace these trends and make the most of the opportunities they offer.

First up was a goal not just to go digital first, but to go fully digital by 2020.

“Government should eliminate paper for interactions within and between departments, and switch exclusively to digital channels for public services that do not need a face-to-face interaction with the public,” it read.

The report specifically pointed to the government adopting electronic purchasing, issuing electronic proofs rather than certificates, and exposing APIs to developers to encourage more apps to communicate with government systems.

The second recommendation focused on the data, again saying the government had yet to go far enough with its policies.

“By 2020 government needs to have moved from open data as a fringe activity to total data as its guiding philosophy,” it said. “Government should extend lean start-up methods as a preferred way of working, incorporate digital and data skills into the Civil Service competency framework, and establish controls to ensure policies can be tested against data.”

“Taken together, these changes should result in better outcomes, delivered more quickly and with less risk.”

By 2020 government needs to have developed more outstanding leaders who can drive digital into the DNA of public sector organisations

Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger: Remaking government for the digital age report, Policy Exchange

The think tank suggested buying big data analytics in too, although on a payment-by-results basis, to put the data to good use and find more ways of saving within government.

The third recommendation was more cultural than practical – although there were tips on how to achieve it.

“As is so often the case, the toughest challenges ahead are around people, leadership and organisational change,” read the report. “By 2020 government needs to have developed more outstanding leaders who can drive digital into the DNA of public sector organisations.”

The practical way of implementing this was to ensure senior staff had external experience outside of government, as well as bringing in more fixed term contracts so people are more driven to get on-board with the digital quickly.

“For people working in government, openness, excellence and innovation must be the norm at all levels of responsibility,” it added.

Further practical measures included publishing an open directory of officials, which it believes would reduce friction around open policy making, enrolling the top 10% of staff across each pay grade into an innovation drive – something often done in the private sector – and allowing teams within government to partner more with external sources, like UK-based start-ups, to further their achievements and take advantage of expertise.

“The changes outlined here would mark a wholesale reorientation of the way government is run,” the report continued. “They are highly interdependent and so we have not attempted to quantify each in isolation.”

The body claims that these moves could make the government up to 8% more effective, which in monetary terms equates to savings of £24bn a year, freed up for either public sector expansion or deficit reduction.

“This agenda matters for all of us,” it concluded. “The notion that we can reach for genuine, transformational change in government, and build a modern, digital, open government to match the needs and expectations of a modern, digital, open society, is one that transcends traditional political ideologies.”

“Starting today, and working together, we can and should remake government for the digital age.”

The report has received support from within Whitehall as well. 

Francis Maude, minister for the cabinet office, said: "This report recognises considerable progress and remarkable potential. We estimate shifting government transactions to digital channels can save £1.2bn by 2015. This will deliver better value for hardworking families and better public services designed around users' needs.”

“In future all government services will be fast, convenient, agile and digital by default."

Mike Bracken, executive director at the Government Digital Service, added: “This report is a timely reminder that our digital journey is only just beginning, and should inspire everyone in government to aim high when deciding where we go next."

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