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The government’s long-awaited digital strategy is set to be the basis of an ambitious transformation of the way that government and the civil service is run, according to a leaked document seen by Computer Weekly.
The plan, which was previously billed as the Government Digital Transformation Strategy, appears instead to have morphed into the Government Transformation Strategy. The 56-page document is titled Government Transformation Strategy detail: Background – and outlines a fundamental rethink of the way Whitehall operates, enabled by the advent of digital technology.
The final strategy is due to be published before Christmas, so it’s possible that the background document may be further amended, but there is no indication it is a draft version. The document explains how government plans to transform the way departments operate by breaking down silos, changing back-office processes and systems, and increasing collaboration.
It sets out clear priorities to be delivered by the end of the current parliamentary cycle in 2020. By leaving out the world “digital” from the title, the paper suggests this is a much broader scale of transformation than previously implied, and will in turn require proper buy-in from departments and civil servants.
The document said the strategy is “not just about providing the digital services citizens rightly expect, but also about ensuring that government continues to modernise itself on the inside”.
It said the division of accountabilities between government departments has meant there have been multiple digital strategies that have not been joined up. This, the document said, has resulted in different parts of government reaching different levels of digital maturity and that, “combined with their differing purposes”, has led to different approaches to transformation.
“Even within the most digitally mature departments, there is a risk of creating disconnected business cases for change and missing the opportunity to consolidate demand and drive reuse within their organisational boundaries. In operational departments, the business change strategy and digital strategy now need to be considered as the same thing,” the document said.
“The time is right for us to think more laterally across departments - and for government to have an integrated transformation strategy, enabled by digital practices and technologies.”
The document calls on departments to evolve and transform their operating models “in dialogue with one another”.
“Across government we must create flexible digital infrastructure, and government services that are responsive to changing environments and enable us to iterate and improve existing services in an agile way,” it said.
Last month, Computer Weekly reported that the strategy, which is due to be published shortly, proposed key objectives such as making government more open, transforming the way government delivers and making it easier for citizens to interact with.
Government Transformation Strategy document
The background document highlights that the need to make changes is vital, particularly as the country faces an unknown future following the EU referendum. It said the need for government and public sector to “be agile and responsive to a changed environment across (or sometimes redefining) existing departmental boundaries has become even more important”.
“This has brought clearly into focus that the digital challenge is not simply about online interactions - but fundamentally about how departments operate on the inside,” it said.
It added that transforming the way “government governs itself” will rely on greater collaboration among civil service professions and between departments.
According to the document, by 2020 the government will build better “workplace tools and processes” making it easier for civil servants to work effectively. It will also work on developing the right skills and culture in the civil service and “bring together policy and delivery to enable services to be delivered in a learning and iterative environment”.
Departments will also retain responsibility for risk around delivery “regardless of the sourcing arrangements”, while exiting current large-scale IT outsourcing contracts.
The government will also continue to make more transactions available online, “including smaller or less-widely used services”.
Transforming the back-end
The document also states that while the government feels it has done well in developing digital services so far, “in many cases they have not yet been able to transform the ‘back end’ of their organisations”.
The digital exemplar programme set up by the Government Digital Service (GDS) during the last parliamentary cycle was intended to showcase the digital transformation drive through 25 high-volume online services. However, the background document said that while they had “been a great success” and delivered “excellent web interfaces”, the back-office processes and systems were not changed.
“In some cases, the online service passes the contents of a web form to back-office staff, who must then re-key the data into an existing system,” it said.
“In others, the online process has been grafted onto legacy technology which does not fully realise the value from digital. These services brought back-office benefits (such as allowing some eligibility checking or removing some of the issues with reading people’s handwriting) and demonstrated that government is capable of delivering better online services, but have not fully delivered fundamental back-end transformation.”
It added that for many of the digital services government has developed, the actual change has been limited to the “online channel” and not focused on policy or processes.
“Changing the back end of these services is frequently only possible through larger-scale transformation programmes,” it said.
The role of GDS
The background document is not a GDS strategy, but instead puts the role of GDS into the wider context of government transformation – although it clearly builds on existing GDS programmes such as “government as a platform” (GaaP) and the Digital Marketplace. It said the government will work on getting better at recognising major transformation projects and supporting departments implementing and delivering services.
GDS will continue to provide “leadership, support and expertise” to departments as they work to transform public services. The organisation will also scrutinise departmental plans on digital and technology spend.
“We will seek to bring earlier engagement on spending plans between departments and GDS, so that support can be provided at the most useful point,” it said.
The document references a further document associated with the strategy, titled “The role of GDS”, suggesting further detail on the future of the organisation will be published along with the final strategy.
Spending control measures were first introduced in 2010, and reinforced by the then Cabinet office minister Francis Maude in 2012, under which any departments wanting to spend more than £100m on IT contracts would need approval from GDS. Any new digital project also has to meet specific service assessment standards created by GDS before going live with a new service - although some large departments have been flouting these rules.
According to a government blog post published this week, £3.56bn savings “have been made as a result of digital and technology transformation across government over the first three years of spend control”, including £339m in the 2015/16 financial year. However, GDS director general Kevin Cunnington has admitted that the spend controls are likely to be relaxed now that some departments are more experienced in their approach to digital.
Chief data officer
The document confirms plans to recruit a new chief data officer for the government “to lead on use of data”.
“Data is driving fundamental changes in our daily lives and in the economy. The ability to make easy data-driven decisions is becoming vital to the way that we all live and work. This should be the way that government provides services,” it said.
The government aims to open up more of its data and to publish application programming interfaces (APIs) to that data to make it more accessible both internally and outside Whitehall.
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“We will enable better use of data by addressing the technical, ethical and legal issues,” said the document, citing “building a national data infrastructure of registers (authoritative lists that are held once across government)” and “continuing to open up government services internally and externally through the use of APIs” among the priorities, as well as “transforming the way that government’s major repositories of data are stored and managed.”
The document reiterates the goal, revealed last month by Computer Weekly, to “work towards 25 million people having a Gov.uk Verify account by 2020”. It also unveils plans to run pilots of Verify for private sector services during 2017, in addition to existing trials with local authorities.
It also reveals plans to work with financial technology (fintech) companies over use of the Gov.uk Pay payment processing tool developed by GDS.
“We will work with the fintech sector to use Gov.uk Pay as a catalyst for the development and adoption of new methods of payment - showing how government can be at the vanguard of innovation and act as a catalyst for our own digital sectors,” said the document.
Other GaaP platforms are under consideration too, said the document, such as payments out, common web forms, and message passing.
Finally, the document looks beyond the current parliament and acknowledges the need to consider future emerging technologies – such as artificial intelligence, wearable tech and the internet of things - so government can take advantage of new digital opportunities better than it has in the past.
“We want to make the best possible preparations for the post-2020 period. We will use current and emerging sources of data so that we can understand what is working well for the current transformation programmes and combine this learning with emerging macro-trends to make the best possible plans for the period after 2020,” it said.
“[We will] map out expected future transformation work to identify cross-departmental dependencies, so that the centre can provide appropriate support; [and] publish a vision of what digital government could look like in the future - and use this to agree what the level of ambition should be.”