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Government needs to ‘take stock’ of digital progress, says Reform

Think-tank says Covid-19 has shown the importance of a ‘digitally enabled’ public sector, but there is still a long way to go to realise the full potential of technology

Think-tank Reform has published a report calling on the government to “take stock” and understand the challenges ahead to realise the benefits of digital transformation in the public sector.

The report, Digital public services: what’s next?, found that the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the “patchy nature of public service digitisation”, including the absence of basic but essential capabilities in some areas.

It said that although ministers and senior public sector leaders have long realised that public sector infrastructure needs to be done right, and that the pandemic has further shown the importance of it, this is not always “translated into an appropriate level of investment or action”.

“To drive the next phase of digital public services, it is crucial that government takes stock of the progress made so far and understands the challenges that still lie ahead in order to truly realise the benefits of digital transformation,” said the report.

It sets out three main ideas for how the government can achieve this. The first calls on the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to lead a cross-government digital skills strategy, together with Cabinet Office.

“This should include a focus on how to develop and retain digital leaders in the public sector, including reviewing the pay scales for those with high-level technical skills,” said the report.

It added that fixing the digital skills gap is key to delivering further public service transformation. “This gap deeply affects the public sector’s ability to make the most of available technologies,” it said.

“There is a compelling case to be made that securing the right technical skills warrants hiring outside of the current pay structures.”

The report said the Government Digital Service (GDS) recently recruited for a head of technology and architecture with a maximum salary of £70,887, while typical pay for this type of role ranges from £65,000 to £180,000 in the private sector.

“This clearly shows a wide pay gap between the public and the private sectors and helps explain why it is hard to attract and retain those types of skills in the public sector,” it said.

The report pointed out that having the right leadership in place can ensure departments do not fall behind in their digital transformation journeys.

Another idea put forward by Reform is for the Cabinet Office to identify solutions to “key blockers which have prevented public sector organisations acting on existing guidance” as part of its strategy on moving away from legacy IT.

“It could consider the creation of a cross-government legacy IT fund, to support departments to move away from legacy systems,” it said.

“Legacy IT – defined as old computer systems, programming languages or application software that are still being used even though more up-to-date ways of operating are available – is another key barrier to government digital transformation.”

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Despite legacy infrastructure being recognised as a key barrier to improving public services, public sector data can still be trapped within legacy IT which “lacks interoperability with other systems and therefore makes it very hard to extract and use to deliver smart services”, the Reform report said.

“There is still a lot work to be done to modernise the public sector’s digital infrastructure,” it added. “Despite existing guidance and documents published on the Gov.UK website trying to help public services move away from legacy IT, the problem persists and there is therefore is a gap between guidance and action taking on the ground.”

The report said there needs to be greater commitment from government, particularly the Cabinet Office, to understand the impact of legacy IT and the reason why departments have struggled to move away from it, despite clear guidance from GDS to do so.

The report also highlighted issues around digital identity, particularly the Gov.uk Verify platform.

GDS’s government as a platform (GaaP) strategy originally set out three new platforms – Gov.uk Pay, Gov.uk Notify and Gov.uk Verify. The first two have been a success, but Verify has not.

“Verify – a common identity assurance programme designed to be used by all government departments – has struggled with take-up,” said the report. “Major government departments, such as HM Revenue and Customs, developed their own identity verification schemes as Verify did not meet their needs.

“Verify’s failure exemplifies common mistakes made across digital transformation programmes – an underestimation of complexity and over-optimistic ambitions. Digital transformation is not only about having a sleek platform front end.

“The back end processes that power the platform need to reflect the ways in which departments work. Interviewees for this paper unanimously argued that digital transformation is mostly about people and ways of working, with technology underpinning that.”

The report also said the government needs to change the way it spends money on IT. In an opinion piece for Computer Weekly, Reform researcher Matthew Fetzer said: “In an era of subscription-based services, viewing technology solely as a long-term capital investment is becoming a thing of the past.

“If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that public services need to be resilient, agile, and able to ramp up capacity in times of crisis. In the digital age, all three are very difficult without the right infrastructure in place.”

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