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Digital government needs action plan and clear standards, says IfG

Institute for Government report calls on Whitehall to publish a digital government implementation plan and prioritise digital services vital to Brexit

Whitehall’s transformation strategy needs clear timelines, targets and priorities to have a chance at success, according to the Institute for Government (IfG).

In its Improving the management of digital government report, the think tank highlighted the need for change, not just in digital teams but across the entire government leadership. 

The IfG report, which sets out a series of recommendations, said the government’s transformation strategy, published in February this year, failed to establish clear priorities, with very few deadlines and no budget allocations.  

IfG stated that although the strategy highlighted a list of government services that would be “digitally accessible by 2020”, each of these was “at a very different scale and level of complexity”, so the government needed to prioritise the services that were vital to a successful Brexit.

“As part of a wider review of capacity and processes, the new government needs to prioritise the digitisation of key services to manage Brexit, to avoid burdening residents and businesses with paperwork and imposing costs on the economy as a result of bureaucratic delays,” the report said.

Services such as HM Revenue and Customs’ (HMRC) Customs Declaration Services programme was not mentioned as a priority in the strategy, but is critical for Brexit, and has been flagged as “needing urgent action to make it effective”, the report added.

Earlier this year, the Treasury committee said it had lost confidence in the implementation of the system and was concerned it would be a failure.  

Speaking at the IfG report launch, report author Daniel Thornton said that although the transformation strategy had “lots of good words about what government was going to do”, it didn’t say what needed to be done by when.

“It needs an implementation plan to give it some bite,” he said. “Another thing the strategy didn’t do was establish priorities. If we’re going to do Brexit, we need new services, and they’d better be digital and they’d better be good.”

The need for active transformation

The IfG report said the transformation strategy recognised that “existing departmental boundaries do not correspond with people’s needs” and that plans to create a network of civil service leaders working to transform government helps, but more was needed.

“At present, it is very difficult for business cases for spending, which require Treasury approval, to be developed across more than one Whitehall department,” the report said.

“If we’re going to do Brexit, we need new services, and they’d better be digital and they’d better be good”
Daniel Thornton, IfG

Also speaking at the launch, Janet Hughes, digital leadership director at Doteveryone – and former director of the Gov.uk Verify identity assurance programme and head of strategy, policy and departmental engagement at the Government Digital Service (GDS) – said there needed to be a “massive push on digital capabilities” across both local and central government.

“If you have leaders, like Treasury, making decisions on the amount of money being spent on tech, and they don’t understand it, you have no hope,” she said, pointing out that we need leaders across government who not just understand basic information about digital and technology, but are “confident, competent and curious when it comes to digital and capable of making decisions about it”.  

Commenting on the need for an implementation plan for the transformation strategy, Hughes said: “We’ve had lots of lists in government, but things don’t get done.”

She added that the government should instead look at why this happens and address that. She said it was key to have the entire organisation embracing digital, and not see it as a separate issue.  

“It’s not a question about which tech or processes or standards you use, it’s about the whole of government and how it works – its leadership, culture, ways of working and capabilities,” said Hughes.

Part of the problem with the inertia in government is that departments are incentivised to do things on their own, and de-incentivised to collaborate.

“It’s a systemic issue to do with the structure of government,” she said, adding that Brexit was an opportunity for government to think about how it works. “Do we really need departments, or should we operate in a different way?”

Clearer standards across public services

The IfG report also called on the government to do more to clarify and push common standards across public services. It said that if GDS clarified its standards, it would be “easier for it to hold departments to account for meeting them”. Although GDS has been successful in pushing the digital service standards, many are merely there as guidance and cannot be measured.

The IfG called on GDS to make standards tiered, “so that the requirements for all digital initiatives were at the highest level – for example, user needs, interoperability – with the particular requirements for services and technology specified separately”, and to draw a clearer separation between guidance and standards.

Although local government does not fall into GDS’s remit, having joined-up, common services requires different public sector services to work together. “While there are examples of impressive services provided by local government, there is great variation,” the report said.

A group of 19 local authorities have created their own version of the GDS Digital Service Standard. This is a welcome development, but they represent around 5% of English local authorities. English city deals have included various digital commitments but have not been used to promote interoperability.”

The report also called on GDS to produce standards for application programming interfaces (APIs) to be used across government.

“Producing standards for APIs will help to make it a reality. Given the lack of widely accepted standards outside government, GDS should at this stage curate rather than impose standards,” the report said.

“It should begin by creating a catalogue of APIs currently in use, with owners and interested communities identified. Some quality control by GDS would be needed – for example if an API did not meet security requirements.”

The report also called on GDS to clarify the roles of the government’s identity assurance platform Gov.uk Verify and the Government Gateway, which is being developed further by HMRC.

Earlier this year, HMRC published a blog that said the department was intending to use a redeveloped version of the existing Government Gateway service instead of Verify.

However, after journalists queried this with HMRC and the Cabinet Office, the blog post was amended to remove that section, with the department instead saying it was “committed to Verify as the single identification service for individuals and is fully focused on delivering this”. However, the two programmes have reportedly caused tension within government.

“The logic of the [Conservative Party’s] manifesto commitments is that the Government Gateway should no longer be used to check the identity of individuals,” the report said. “This is not an area where competition is helpful. However, there is still a need to check the identity of companies and agents, and the Government Gateway or its successor could continue to perform this function.”

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