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Government transformation strategy aims to 'restore faith in democracy', says minister

Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer outlines his ambitious hopes for the new government transformation strategy at its launch

The new government transformation strategy is not simply about delivering savings from digital reform, but is an important part of restoring public faith in government and in democracy, according to Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer.

Announcing the strategy at a conference organised by the Reform think tank, Gummer said 2016’s Brexit vote showed “the interface between government and the people has become increasingly fraught”.

He positioned the strategy as being at the heart of how Whitehall operates and its relationship with citizens.

“This not just savings for savings’ sake, nor is this transformation for transformation’s sake – this is to change the nature of government, so we are serving the public who we seek to serve, and [with a government] that they desperately wish to feel served by,” he said.

“If we can do that over the next few years this will not be a mere accounting exercise, this will not be something just to provide an easier way of getting a passport or a driving licence. It will be to do something which will restore faith in our democracy.”

Gummer stressed the importance of the Government Digital Service (GDS) and highlighted what he saw as its achievements and “worldwide renown” over the past six years, in “changing the interface between public and people in government on the internet”. But he said government now needs to go a lot further.

“We have to think profoundly about the way that public service reflects what it actually means to the individual citizen. It’s not [a task] we achieve by just saying something; it’s by doing something not just at the interface on a web page but in the way that government itself operates. That is at the heart of transformation,” he said.

Increasing collaboration

The much-delayed strategy is intended to “take digital transformation further than ever before” by prioritising an overhaul of the civil service, developing skills and culture, using shared platforms, changing back-office processes and systems, and increasing collaboration across Whitehall.

Gummer cited £3.56bn of savings he said has been delivered by digital transformation across government since 2010, but added that the important change that needs to take place is in the “back-end” of how government works.  

“There’s no point having a pretty shop-front if the mechanisms behind correspond more with the late 19th century than with what a modern service should look like. The government transformation strategy outlines this in very significant detail. It explains how we are going to transform government services,” he said.

“We are now going for deep transformation, the low-hanging fruit having been picked. We will begin to see those [savings] numbers ramp up as we go through this Parliament.”

Ben Gummer

 “There’s no point having a pretty shop-front if the mechanisms behind it correspond more with the late 19th century”

Ben Gummer, Cabinet Office minister

Gummer publicly acknowledged – for the first time – that relations between GDS and departments in the past has hindered the progress of digital change, with major departments such as the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) lobbying for GDS’s influence to be reduced. But he said necessity means the situation is improving.

“There’s no secret about it. It has been difficult for the next transformation to begin. Why is that? There’s nothing wrong with GDS or with the departments they work with. We’re asking for profound cultural change – where we’re getting to now with digital transformation isn’t about kit, it’s about the way that we operate,” he said.

“This is a challenge that faces all incumbents. If you’re lucky enough to be a startup you can design this from the bottom up. But when you’re a large bank, government or a supermarket, you’re talking about significant cultural change. By any measure, five-and-a-half years is quick to achieve that cultural change.”

He cited the improved relations with DWP as an example of better collaboration across Whitehall.

“What I can tell you from my experience in the job so far is – it is happening. We have almost a weekly meeting in terms of our relationship between GDS and the DWP. The relationship is improving. The nature of that discussion is one of a shared goal that people in the room would have felt was impossible two years ago,” said Gummer.

“That’s the speed of which things have happened. Why is that? There’s a lot of reasons but there’s a base one which is that when money is tight people have to look for new ways to do things, so it encourages reform. It encourages a degree of collaboration which is new.”

Digital Che Guevara

The minister said GDS itself is maturing as an organisation.

“It was right that GDS was an insurgent to start with – look at the effect it’s had as a result of doing that. But every insurgent at some point needs to assume rulership and take on the responsibilities of statehood,” he said.

“So [GDS director general Kevin Cunnington] is this modern day Che Guevara of digital and has to have a relationship with his colleagues which is different. The departments understand that too. That’s why the relationship between GDS and departments is genuinely positive now and we are building something special.”

Gummer added that he intends to convince departments to work together more effectively.

“I'm going around to departments to say, ‘I can save you money here and here in procurement, digital and property – work with me’. [I hope] they are keen to take that up because they can see results in the programmes that have already been happening.”

Gummer also highlighted the impending appointment of a government chief data officer as a critical part of achieving the changes he wants to see.

“It will be first time we have one person responsible for data in government, which will have a transformational effect on the way we are gathering and deploying data and big data across government,” he said.

“Data is going to be the way we achieve the largest transformation in government. For instance, we could identify [people] living in full poverty so they can automatically receive support – a major change, and one people have been calling for, for decades.

“Proper sharing of personal data across government can maximise the interaction with government and understand individuals in a way government has previously not done.”

Digital targets

Gummer highlighted a target in the transformation strategy – revealed in 2016 by Computer Weekly – to have at least 25 million people using the Verify online identity assurance service by the end of 2020. He also outlined targets for other digital services such as passports.

“That is a stretching ambition but I would like to go even further if we possibly can. What that does is give a verification platform not only for government but that we can use elsewhere. It will give citizens an ability to operate in a digital economy that will be unrivalled anywhere else in the world,” he said.

“We also plan to digitise the passport service entirely so people can apply online without a requirement for paper copies. My aspiration is that 90% of [passport] applications will be fully digital by 2020, which would be a world-leading achievement.

“We have a national census in 2021 and I want 75% of people to have done that online, which will be a significant jump from the previous census. Some of that is front-end stuff, but it requires massive back-end transformation to make it happen.”

Gummer also reflected on one of the biggest challenges in government technology – the problems of digitisation in the NHS in the aftermath of the failed National Programme for IT.

“We have not got digital right in the NHS yet, it’s the big bit we need to go a lot further on, and to learn from the mistakes for which we are still paying. The cheques I’m writing on that every day for someone else’s decision back in 2004 makes me extremely angry because it’s money we can’t spend on doing the proper stuff,” he said.

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