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Better collaboration will be the key to overcoming the problems associated with the government’s cumbersome legacy IT systems, according to senior civil servants and digital leaders.
The challenges that ageing IT presents to the digital transformation of government include a lack of interoperable systems and data-sharing capabilities, as well as siloed workflows which mean even teams in the same Whitehall departments end up repeating or replicating systems, delegates were told at TechUK’s Building the Smarter State event in London on 18 September.
“Our colleagues generally have a very difficult time providing the services they want to customers and that’s largely because, like many organisations, we have an extremely varied set of technologies which support them – often a different set for each of our  benefits,” said Simon McKinnon, chief digital officer at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
“Navigating between the complexity of all those different systems tends to mean that our agents cannot give the sort of service to customers that they would really like to.”
McKinnon said that although efficiency had improved in recent years, the DWP was “running out of not only low-hanging fruit, but low-hanging branches”, meaning it must focus on taking a more “holistic” approach to the delivery of benefits, rather than tackling them one by one.
“We need to do better at managing services collectively,” he said. “We have something like 23 postcode checkers in the department – that’s partly because of the technologies our systems are written in, but it’s partly because we generally build in isolated teams that replicate each other’s work.”
McKinnon’s assertion that cross-government collaboration will become a more pronounced feature of digital government was reflected by John Manzoni, chief executive of the civil service.
At the event, Computer Weekly asked Manzoni to clarify the thinking behind the government’s renewed search for a chief digital and information officer (CDIO), this time at the level of permanent secretary.
He described the position as “a central role at the centre of government to assist, help and challenge all of government’s digital and technology development”.
He said it was one of the more complex functional roles because it “has to span the new, exciting and digitally agile with the old and legacy, which is where the bulk of government sits”.
During one of the event’s panel discussions, officials from local and regional authorities explained their approach to creating more unified public services in their areas.
Phil Swan, chief information officer and digital lead at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, said political leadership was critical for his authority’s unified model of public services.
“It goes right from the mayor downwards across the 10 leaders of the councils, the chief executives and all the other organisations,” he said.
“They recognise that we can’t shift from that reactive, acute, siloed, expensive model of public services to one that’s more proactive, joined up and effective, unless we do something that’s fundamental.”
But Swan and other panelists warned against taking on too much at once, which could paralyse the push for better digital services.
“Start small and scale up, especially if you’re working with new partners,” said Jenny Nelson, Digital Newcastle programme manager for Newcastle City Council.
“Scale it back to something that’s manageable. You bring people along with collaboration by showing there’s a benefit to doing it, and benefits for all, so if that means taking a step back, starting with something a bit smaller and building that up, that’s probably a better starting place than setting out to fail.”
Swan said certain capabilities should be developed just once, rather than having multiple systems that essentially perform the same function. “We should do that one [capability] really well and then everyone should use it,” he added.
Joanna Davinson, chief digital and information officer at the Home Office, said convincing government organisations to invest in the networks and infrastructure that underpin the development of any new capabilities is a challenge in itself, especially for collaborative projects.
“It’s a real challenge because we’re all coming from different places with our legacy estates,” she said.
“There are some very active dialogues going on across the digital innovation technology networks – some of them are led by the GDS [Government Digital Service] or Cabinet Office, some of them are just connections and departments coming together to try to solve problems. But I can’t pretend it’s nearly as embedded as a way of working as I would like.”
Davinson said digital transformation in government also needs new approaches to emerging technologies and innovation.
“Traditionally, the way in which we delivered technology was that we’ve delivered a big thing, chucked it over the wall and watched it die while we’ve thought about the next thing,” she said. “But we’re changing the way we think about technology to be about a much more continuous evolution, development-type approach.
“I have an innovation strategy in the Home Office. We do horizon scanning, we have a science and technology capability that supports us with that, and we have a lot of innovative access to some quite innovative technology because of some of the clients we work with in intelligence and counter-terrorism.
“The challenge is harnessing that into production at an enterprise scale – that’s the area where we’re still working on how do we manage the innovation pipeline so we can test things, sort out the things that we want to take forward to scale up and industrialise to bring into our core estate, and then how to sustain and maintain that going forward.”
Davinson said better ways of working with technology suppliers will also be important. “One of the things I find difficult is suppliers turn up with a really good idea, but I just can’t consume it on my complicated and difficult-to-stitch-together IT,” she said. “It’s like, come back in two years so I can do something about that.
“That is part of the problem. What do we do about it? That’s a challenge for us over the next two to five years and I would like to see us taking a more cross-government view of things.”