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Digital transformation - the missing government mission?

Not for the first time, an incoming government has an enormous opportunity to improve public services through digital transformation - but whoever wins the general election will need to learn the lessons of the past

Unless current election polling proves to be massively mistaken, the UK is on the brink of a Labour government. But what will that mean for long-standing government efforts to deliver a “digital transformation” of the public sector?

Computer Weekly has provided useful insight into how the Lib Dems, Conservatives, and Labour view the role of technology — from a potential review of IR35 tax laws and improvements to the NHS app, to new industrial strategies to regulate AI and deliver “data-driven public services”.

Labour is planning “the largest Whitehall shake-up in decades” to break down departmental silos in pursuit of five new “missions.” These five missions will be led by the Prime Minister and aim to kickstart economic growth, make Britain a clean energy superpower, take back our streets, break down barriers to opportunity, and build an NHS fit for the future.

If the next government wants to succeed in tackling the many challenges it faces, the Prime Minister might also want to consider heading up a sixth mission - to reset government’s approach to digital transformation.

Why digital matters

Government would be far better equipped to tackle the challenges it faces if the past 30 years of “digital transformation” strategies had fulfilled their promise. Digital technologies and practices can improve policymaking, streamline administration, and provide insights that help governments learn, react, and adapt more effectively.

Unfortunately, despite decades of expenditure on “digital transformation”, our public sector largely still operates as it did in the last century.

This is why a sixth mission is important. A better approach to digital reform is no longer simply a “nice to have”. It’s essential to help break down departmental silos, improve democratic engagement, enjoy better informed and responsive policymaking, deliver better outcomes, reduce the administrative burden, and overhaul and modernise our public sector organisations.

The political and human consequences of digital failure

The long-standing failure to transform our public sector degrades the effectiveness of government policymaking and administration. It’s a failure with very real, often life-affecting human consequences, undermining governments’ ability to deliver their democratic mandate. No wonder voter confidence is at a record low.

In his much-quoted 1960s “white heat of technology” speech, former Prime Minister Harold Wilson commented that: “The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry.”

However, governments have rarely focused their digital efforts on modernising their “outdated methods”. Instead, digital programmes have largely automated existing silo organisational structures and their related transactional processes and paper-era forms.

The bulging library of National Audit Office (NAO) and Public Accounts Committee (PAC) reports provides copious evidence of digital failure. Current failures include breaches of the rule of law and the routine loss or alteration of data in critical national systems.

These failures not only raise concerns about the quality of systems engineering and design. They also highlight the damaging fracture between policymaking and technology - the consequence of nearly three decades of missed political opportunities to use technology to rethink and redesign the public sector to improve public policy outcomes. 

The 30-year-old treadwheel of moving bureaucratic paper transactions and forms onto a screen has little to do with “transformation”. Far from it. Digitising and automating paper-era transactions and departments lock out better ways of organising and working, frustrating repeated political efforts to “break down the silos” of Whitehall. Government needs to learn how technology can reduce the administrative burden, not simply digitise it.

The result of this gap between digital aspiration and reality is that governments lack the policymaking instruments, institutions, and processes required to operate effectively in our fast-moving and ever more challenging world. The outcome is the very opposite of what successive UK administrations aimed to achieve.

It’s time to change the mindset

The long-desired modernisation of our public sector and public institutions will only happen when there’s a sustained political commitment to embrace technology to deliver democratic, social, and economic improvements.

Poor organisational memory, inconsistent leadership and management, and a failure to learn from the past three decades have undermined digital transformation. As a result, outside of small pockets of excellence, there’s a notable lack of progress towards the design and implementation of a more effective public sector fit for the 21st century.

The good news is that a reset does not require new, unproven ideas. It’s about working more effectively, applying lessons learned from the past three decades - what works and what doesn’t. And it’s about delivering improved leadership, management, and orchestration of existing expertise and resources.

The next government needs to implement a better approach - one that modernises government’s underlying policymaking, structures, practices, processes, operations, and administration. True digital transformation can only happen as part of a sustained political mission to improve policymaking and public administration. To succeed, it needs a reset of digital government that: 

  • Improves policy outcomes, using approaches such as systems thinking as the basis for the more effective development, design, implementation and improvement of policies;
  • Improves early policy collaboration, engaging a wider range of professionals at the inception of policy development;
  • Implements realistic approaches to data, by grounding data selection, analysis, management and use in reality;
  • Provides relevant education, helping technologists and other specialists understand the policy and legislative business processes of government to help them better support policy design and implementation.

Policymakers and digital specialists need to work as part of collaborative, integrated teams to develop more flexible organisations and information systems better able to improve policymaking and public administration, including the delivery of non-digital, face-to-face interactions. 

Map the landscape

Mapping the landscape will help improve situational awareness and identify what’s working and what isn’t, what can be re-used, what needs fixing, and how.

There’s a plethora of documentation and guidance spanning everything from legislation to policymaking, finance, governance, education and training, procurement, technology, and data standards. But there’s little coherence. Navigating and applying what’s available can be complex, contradictory, and time-consuming.

Expertise and resources are not effectively directed and used consistently. Digital and technology guidance and implementation all too often lives in isolation from the wider political, policymaking, legal, and administrative environment in which it needs to operate.

Mapping the landscape will help identify aspects that need to be improved, removed, or more closely integrated. It will need to include HM Treasury’s Green Book, Business Cases, the Service Standard, and the wide range of other existing guidance from policy to procurement.

For example, the widely used Service Standard helps “government create and run good digital services.” But it also illustrates the isolation of digital teams from the design of legislation and policy. As part of its reset of digital transformation, the next government should incorporate the Service Standard into a new Policy Standard that brings together policy, legal, technical, and commercial guidance and assurance.

Reinvigorate democratic engagement and accountability

Technology offers the opportunity to strengthen the role of citizens and democratic society. It can help to improve the political and constitutional relationship between national, regional, and local government across roles, responsibilities, resourcing, funding mechanisms, and accountability. Digital technologies and practices can play an essential role in enabling more effective and democratic organisation and administration.

Read more about digital government

The principles of open government - transparency, participation, collaboration, and scrutiny - provide a useful starter kit for improved democratic engagement and accountability. While welcome progress has been made with opening up government data, adopting open standards, and promoting the role of platforms such as the website and Pay, they need to be more consistently understood, adopted, and implemented. Mandates should be considered if progress continues to stall.

Scrutiny and accountability also need to be improved by implementing a consistent set of requirements and metrics from the earliest policy research and design to the business case onwards. They need to cover aspects such as policy, legislation, technology - including data - and procurement, along with processes of continuous assurance and transparency. 

Rationalise and streamline public sector organisation and administration

An important test of government programmes should be the extent to which they use technology to reduce the administrative burden. Technology can help eliminate or minimise duplicative costs, data, structures, and processes within and between organisations. 

Instead of putting paper-era processes online - which does little to reduce the administrative burden and can outsource more of the burden onto citizens’ shoulders - they need to be removed wherever possible and replaced with smarter alternatives such as data-driven public services. Business cases should require an assessment of the administrative burden pre- and post-implementation.

Account should be taken of the analyses and recommendations of NAO and PAC reports. The wider community of guidance available in areas such as the use of platforms is also highly relevant to structural and operational reform. And executive education programmes in digital operating models are needed for politicians, their advisers, and senior officials.

Track and anticipate change

Government needs to improve the way it tracks and anticipates change if it is to plan and respond in more timely and appropriate ways. There’s extensive existing work to tap into and use more effectively — for example, the Government Office for Science Futures toolkit for policymakers and analysts.

As part of this work, government needs to ensure it has sufficient experience and expertise in-house to avoid being misled or sidetracked by the latest fad “tech bubbles”. It needs to employ more specialists with the knowledge and expertise to distinguish between hype and reality. 

Making it happen: mission number six

The next UK government has the chance to use technology to radically improve our public sector, helping rethink and reforge it to work better for employees and citizens alike. 

At a time when the UK faces a growing list of challenges, “digital” and “technology” and “data” may sound geeky and irrelevant to politicians, citizens, and business alike — but the very opposite is true.

Part of the reason governments find it so hard to research, learn, adapt and react quickly and effectively to these ever-growing challenges arises from the failure to deliver the long-promised transformation of our public sector.

A better approach to digital technologies and practices will improve policymaking and streamline administration. It will help governments deliver their manifesto commitments and missions more swiftly and effectively across Whitehall’s silos, and improve their ability to listen and respond to citizens and businesses in a timelier way. 

True digital transformation is no longer simply a “nice to have.” It’s essential to help politicians and policymakers better understand and fix the UK’s mounting social, economic, geopolitical, and environmental challenges.

A reset will improve democratic engagement, support better informed and responsive policymaking, reduce the administrative burden, and deliver a more effective way to organise and administer the public sector.

That’s why a mission to deliver a smarter, more effective public sector, better adapted for the 21st century, deserves to be a top priority for the next UK government.

Jerry Fishenden is an independent technologist working with a range of clients. He was formerly CTO for Microsoft UK, the City of London financial regulator, the UK Parliament, and the National Health Service, and has advised a variety of governments. He is the author of Fracture: the collision between technology and democracy—and how we fix it and co-author of Digitizing government: understanding and implementing new digital business models. This article is a summary of work on a more detailed series of analyses and recommendations to help governments use technology more effectively.

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