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GDS strategy aims to 'take digital transformation further'

An early draft of the new Government Digital Transformation Strategy, seen by Computer Weekly, aims to tackle the challenge of breaking down civil service IT siloes

The new UK government digital strategy will aim to “take digital transformation further than ever before” by prioritising an overhaul of the highly siloed back-office functions across the civil service.

The Government Digital Transformation Strategy is due to be published before the end of December 2016, but Computer Weekly has seen an early draft version that reveals the key objectives initially proposed by new Government Digital Service (GDS) chief Kevin Cunnington.

Computer Weekly understands that Whitehall departments are being consulted on the draft strategy, and that the final document will be different. But this early version gives an insight into GDS’s thinking.

The document outlines three high-level objectives:

  • Making government simple for citizens to interact with.
  • Making government more open.
  • Transforming the way government delivers.

“[This means] services focus on improved outcomes for citizens and more efficient delivery, instead of being constrained by current organisational boundaries, allowing government to become more flexible to respond rapidly to changing events. Ultimately, to be able to iterate both policy and services based on evidence of their impact,” said the document.

“The world is changing rapidly and technology is ever advancing. Government needs to work in a modern, contemporary way that responds to these changes, and this transformation of government – to meet the raised expectations of citizens in the digital age – is at the heart of redefining the relationship between the citizen and the state.”

The draft plan details five areas of focus for the strategy, and said: “To support these ambitions by 2020 the government will take digital transformation further and deeper than before.”

End-to-end transformation

The first area is likely to be the most challenging, and is described as: “End-to-end transformation of whole services and back-office functions, meeting users’ whole needs across all channels and joining up central government services with those provided by different sectors.”

The potential difficulties in such a transformation arise from the reliance on buy-in from Whitehall departments, several of which have previously been hostile to GDS’s involvement. In a recent interview, Cunnington admitted that relations had sometimes been “adversarial”.

The draft strategy acknowledges the progress made in departments developing new digital transactions, but says that much more now needs to be done.

“There is more to do to take a cross-government view of service design and delivery – building on transactions, but going deeper into each government organisation,” said the document.

Multichannel services

The plan says that priorities for the current parliamentary cycle to 2020 include developing multichannel services that “cut across organisational boundaries”. Critics of government’s digital progress have often pointed out that the siloed nature of the civil service restricts the ability to deliver services to citizens that require such cross-departmental collaboration.

The draft strategy contains no specific details on how such an objective will be delivered, but acknowledges the challenges in achieving it.

“To do all this, policy, operations, digital and technology need to work hand in hand. To be successful and efficient, policy, digital, technology and operations colleagues must work together to meet their users’ needs. To do this, we need the same priorities, but also the same language and methodologies,” said the document.

This part of the plan revolves around two “axes of transformation”, described as “transformation of whole services” and “transformation of government”, which the strategy document explains in this way:

“There will be a transformation of whole services from end to end. From the point at which a user has a need, to the point where it is met, [it will be] agnostic to the department providing it – in every channel. Design and digitisation of multichannel services means using digital to enable better support for users in offline channels and providing consistency of channel access to support 100% of citizens, 100% of the time.”

“Transformation of government - front-end to back-office transformation,” it continued. “Although it starts with user needs, full transformation is about more than just the service a user experiences. It means ‘deep transformation’ of the organisation that provides it, including the back-end functions, data, technology and capability that it relies on.”

Read more about government digital strategy

However, the plan attempts to redefine the “digital by default” mantra introduced in the early days of GDS, and which was subsequently criticised after the failure of digital services at the Rural Payments Agency in March 2015.

“The distinction between digital and non-digital services is outdated. A digital-by-default government is one that uses digital to improve the service to users and taxpayers, regardless of channel,” said the document.

Strong digital centre

The draft strategy reiterates the role of GDS as “the strong digital centre at the heart of digital transformation of government”, and says that GDS is moving from working like a startup to a “more mature phase”.

“GDS’s role going forward needs to reflect the changes in capability in departments over the last period and GDS’s growing maturity. It is also not prescriptive. Like many things, GDS’s role will be dependent on the context, and should be responsive to the context or situation,” it said.

“Broadly, GDS’s role will be to support, enable and assure. This means setting the direction for government and creating the enabling environment to free service teams to delivery, as well as ensuring that teams deliver the right thing in the right way.”

The government will take digital transformation further and deeper than before
Draft GDS strategy document

The strategy also highlights the role GDS will play in a Brexit Britain.

“The result of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union has shown that government needs to be flexible and responsive to emerging priorities,” it said. “GDS will lead a conversation across government about how digital government can enable the public sector to deal more effectively with change.”

Apart from the focus on end-to-end transformation, the remaining four areas of activity for GDS are mostly a continuation of its existing work. These areas cover government as a platform; making better use of data and identity; developing digital skills in government; and improving the technology used by civil servants through an ongoing programme called Common Technology Services.

The document also reveals there are about 30,000 people currently employed in digital, data and technology jobs across the civil service, made up of 12,000 staff and 18,000 contractors, with plans to significantly increase those numbers.

The document acknowledges the difficulties that still remain in moving government departments off legacy IT systems and away from long-term outsourcing arrangements.

“Government technology is complex. Both existing contracts and the actual technology can be difficult to unpick. We need to retire legacy technology in the right sequence and for the right reasons,” it said.

Better public services

The draft strategy promises to deliver better public services and save money.

“[It will] achieve the right outcomes for citizens by improving customer service and meeting people’s increased expectations; improving efficiency and reducing operating costs through an evolution to nimble and flexible structures that can cope with continual change. [It will] release spend for more/better policy delivery, tax reduction or deficit reduction,” said the document.

“[It will] unlock digital’s ‘multiplier effect’ - better services yield better outcomes for a better economy and a better country. Situational awareness will become increasingly important in the months and years ahead,” it said.

“We will not make decisions by dogma, by ‘one size fits all’, or by latest industry trend. Instead we will look at the user need and the business context. This means, for example, that there may be different approaches across government for different-sized organisations.”

GDS has yet to publish a strategy since being awarded a £450m budget in the November 2015 spending review. A strategy was due to be released before the end of last year, but was delayed several times.

It remained unpublished when Cunnington was controversially announced as the new director general of GDS in August 2016, but he has since then been working on developing the plan, and promised it will be released before Christmas 2016.

Cunnington made a point of adding the word “transformation” into the title of the document, making it the Government Digital Transformation Strategy. This suggests the ambitious “end-to-end transformation” aspects of the plan come from his initiative, particularly given that other areas are similar to pre-existing GDS programmes.

Read more on IT for government and public sector

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