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Successfully digitally transforming government rests on improving digital skills, embedding a culture of innovation and making public sector procurement more agile.
At trade association TechUK’s Building the Smarter State event in London on 27 September 2023, government ministers and civil servants working at various levels of government spoke about the need for public sector digital transformation efforts to be underpinned by new ways of working, both internally and in the private sector.
During discussions throughout the day, they outlined how this could be achieved by improving digital skills across the entire public sector (not just in digital-specific roles), creating more agile relationships with IT suppliers, and instilling a culture of innovation focused on outcomes rather than technology.
In a keynote address, Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin outlined the need for systemic reform of how the public sector approaches technology to unlock the transformative potential of innovation.
“Too many of our practices – from how programmes are funded, to how IT systems are procured – need reform,” he said. “With innovations arriving so quickly, there needs to be a way of implementing these new ways of working in the pre-existing agreements.”
Noting a number of examples of how the public sector is already developing new ways of working with industry – such as the DVLA including “innovation technology refresher courses” in its contracts with IT suppliers, or the Home Office bringing in outside expertise to keep up with new technologies being used by criminal enterprises – Quin added that new procurement regulations due in October 2024 would make public-private collaboration more agile.
Jeremy Quin, Cabinet Office
“The new procurement regulations … provide the flexibility that will make it easier for government to procure innovatively, while providing public sector bodies with far greater opportunity to pilot and adopt innovations from suppliers,” he said, adding government must “be prepared to fail fast and reinvest” to get the most out of such innovations.
“This will represent an important turning point in the well-established relationship between public and private sector.”
To avoid being locked into particular suppliers or technology solutions, other conference delegates said there needed to be a greater focus throughout the public sector on IT lifecycle management.
Karl Hoods, for example, who is group chief digital and information officer (CDIO) at the Department for Energy Security & Net Zero and Department for Science, Innovation & Technology – said not enough discussions were taking place with business leaders about technology lifespans: “Not enough of those discussions are had early on, they normally come when it’s a crunch point.”
In line with this, David Knott, chief technology officer at the Central and Digital Data Office, said the public sector needed to be conscious of buying pipelines rather than products.
He added that while it was previously possible to buy products due to years-long upgrade cycles, the pace of technological change today – and particularly the proliferation of software as a service and platform services – makes this much harder. “We’re buying into a continued upgrade cycle, so the ability and plans for vendors to provide continuous additional value, on top of whatever features there are on the day you do the evaluation, is key,” said Knott.
A pro-innovation culture
Aside from enhancing the public sector’s ability to harness private sector-led innovation, Quin added in his keynote that delivering “better, swifter services for citizens” also rests on the government embedding a pro-innovation culture throughout the public sector.
Linking this to the government’s ambition of making the UK a global leader in the adoption and regulation of artificial intelligence (AI), Quin said: “AI will represent nothing less than a total shift in every part of our lives, leading to improvements as yet undreamed of, and it is vital that the public sector grasps this opportunity.”
However, he added that, in the past, the government has been slow to embrace the opportunities in AI, meaning opportunities to reduce costs and improve services have been missed. “We’ve got to change that, which is why a central team of digital technology experts is creating practical frameworks to put AI to work across the civil service, creating guidance to tackle the problems of privacy, ethics and security,” said Quin.
Part of this pro-innovation culture, he added, would come from improving the digital skills of some civil servants so they can diffuse change throughout their organisations, which the government has already started doing via its One Big Thing initiative.
“Launched two months ago, already 9% of civil servants – that’s 47,000 people – have embarked on the training, and I’m looking forward to what positive changes this cohort will start to make,” said Quin.
“The British people’s experience of the public sector online is now their primary experience of government, which is important because their experience of government digital feeds into their wider sense of how the country is working. There is a high expectation on the government to ensure public services are not only digitally available, but also easy to use.”
Skills and outcomes focus
Speaking on a panel about how to foster a culture of innovation, James Freed, deputy director of the Digital Academy for Health and Care at NHS England, said from a healthcare perspective, the point of innovation is to provide better value for patients, the workforce, taxpayers and the general public, and that the key to doing things differently in 2023 is digital.
He added that the majority of digital change initiatives, roughly 70%, fail across all countries and industries, mostly for cultural and skill reasons.
Richard Corbridge, DWP
Dan Brember, deputy director at Gov.uk, said one way the Government Digital Service (GDS) had attempted to stimulate innovation was through a series of external hires of people from industry into senior teams, which he added had helped create the conditions “where change is not seen as a threat in our own teams”.
He further added, however, that a major challenge of innovating was not getting distracted by the latest “shiny things” in technology, which can make it hard to maintain focus on “genuine innovation” that delivers measurable, tangible benefits.
To avoid this trap, all those on the panel agreed there was a need for a tighter focus on concrete outcomes.
“We’re not here to innovate, but find ways to create better outcomes for everybody who needs the government support,” said Richard Corbridge, CDIO at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). “If that becomes our culture, then suddenly innovation becomes easier because it’s about something tangible and real.”
Speaking on a separate panel about how to embed impact via digital transformation, Gill Stewart, chief digital officer at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, said the public sector generally is moving away from deploying technology for the sake of having new technology.
“Previously, technology was what was being … put in and you had to use it, and it was about trying to make a bad process run slightly faster,” she said, adding there is now more emphasis on developing and deploying tech to achieve specific outcomes instead.
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