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The next UK general election is widely predicted to herald a change of government. Yet whoever wins will face a daunting backlog of urgent and interlinked policy challenges, from health and social care to the environment, housing to education, and justice to defence.
They will also inherit a public sector that lacks the modern policy making processes and public institutions needed to deliver the rapid improvements that citizens and business need and expect. Despite repeated political aspirations since 1996 for technology to help modernise government, provide better and more efficient administration, and secure substantial cost savings for the taxpayer, there’s been surprisingly little progress with the large-scale “digital transformation” of the public sector.
Rather than carry on with “more of the same,” we believe the current approach and thinking needs a major overhaul for the benefits of technology to be fully realised.
Misunderstanding ‘digital transformation’
The National Audit Office (NAO) observes that one reason for the lack of significant progress is that “those running departments need to improve their understanding of digital transformation.”
The Public Accounts Committee makes a similar point, finding that “departments have failed to understand the difference between improving what currently exists and real digital transformation, meaning that they have missed opportunities to move to modern, efficient ways of working.” The NAO’s 2021 study reveals a quarter-century of underperformance in digital transformation strategies by successive governments.
Much of the focus since the 1990s has centred on moving hundreds, if not thousands, of government forms from paper onto a screen, digitising administrative tasks such as renewing a driving licence or obtaining a repeat prescription. However, this digitisation has done little to modernise departments’ underlying policy making, structures, practices, operations, and administration.
Much of the work of the public sector neither begins nor ends on a web page - the predominance of the “website model” of public administration has become a significant part of the problem, displacing more important, and transformational, reforms.
The Post Office Horizon scandal provides a timely reminder of how poor management of technology can lead to devastating human consequences. And the current hype and frenzy about the potential of “artificial intelligence” perfectly illustrates the longstanding, but mistaken belief that technology can somehow provide a magical instrument of change.
As the expensive and high-profile failures of digital exemplars such as Gov.uk Verify and the Rural Payments Agency show, simplistic technical “solutions,” such as bringing big digital programmes in-house, don’t provide magical answers either. The design of the digital Universal Credit system, for example, has not only created a poor user experience but also breached the rule of law.
To help improve and modernise policy making and the effectiveness of our public institutions, the next government urgently needs to develop a better approach to digital technology and data.
We recommend a reset to the use of digital technology and data in government, as follows:
Adopt systems thinking to improve policy outcomes
Use systems thinking as the basis for the more effective development, design, implementation, and improvement of policies.
Using systems thinking in policy design will help identify better ways of achieving an intended policy objective. The application of technology — all technology, not just websites — should be both informative and integral to policy design, rather than a downstream tool used to digitise the current bureaucracy.
Useful guidance on systems thinking for civil servants already exists but needs to be more widely understood and adopted. It should be used alongside a well-informed understanding and knowledge of the capability of technology and data to improve policy outcomes and reduce the administrative burden.
Improve early policy collaboration
Engage a wider range of professionals at the inception of policy development.
It’s commonplace for statisticians, economists, lawyers, Treasury officials and (sometimes) frontline operational staff to be embedded in policy work. However, technologists and procurement specialists are frequently engaged too late, and often mistakenly seen primarily as providing a delivery mechanism for an existing policy, rather than as active professionals in shaping its design. They should be there at the start, alongside improved public engagement.
Procurement is especially crucial to many policy implementations. It requires wider and more creative approaches to a broader market (including SMEs and non-technology businesses) in line with revised thinking about the role of technology. There’s been some useful progress in recent years - such as government targets on SME spending and associated reforms - but greater commitment is required to enable sustainable long-term change.
Implement realistic approaches to data
Ground data selection, analysis, management, and use in reality.
There needs to be a new realism about the quality and range of data collected and held by government. Qualified statistics, mathematics, and data science professionals need to be at the forefront of policy work or technical applications involving data.
The NAO notes that public sector “data quality is poor.” Numerous strategies and proposals have aimed to improve the management of data across government. These include so-called “data sharing,” data standards, and data interoperability. Unfortunately, they often fail to recognise the nature of government data, which is messy — for reasons both good and bad.
Each dataset has been collected for, defined by, and used in a specific policy, legal, and administrative context, with a unique combination of attributes of what, how, when, why, by whom, where, and how accurate. Assumptions about its use, reuse, and combination can be complex. Each application of data is thus likely to be unique and require professional advice rather than generalised rules.
Provide relevant education
Establish education and development programmes for technologists and other specialists to provide an understanding of the policy and legislative business processes of government — to help them better support policy design and implementation.
Specialists, especially technologists and commercial advisers, need to better understand the processes involved in government’s core functions. Many specialists are recruited from outside government or have had little exposure to the world of politics, policy, and Parliament. Education in how these work is essential to enable them to participate in policy work, and to avoid “breaching legal principles around procedural fairness” when involved with designing and implementing systems.
Commission dedicated Cabinet committees
Establish a dedicated Cabinet committee for each major cross-government policy development and implementation.
Dedicated Cabinet committees should have responsibility for ensuring full cross-departmental involvement and oversight, including technological aspects and adherence to democratic principles, such as the rule of law.
Digital initiatives need to work within the existing constitutional structures and accountabilities of government. The last three decades have witnessed a repeated ambition to reform government to support coherent policy and technology implementation. These aspirations use language such as “breaking down departmental silos” or providing “joined-up services.” However, many of these proposals, notably those from a technological perspective, demonstrate an insufficient grasp of the structural and constitutional foundations of government. This is partly why previous technology-driven attempts to de-silo government have foundered.
Secretaries of state and civil service permanent secretaries have specific responsibilities and accountabilities, and government departments have specific roles, resulting from the Westminster model of Cabinet and Parliamentary government. If the desire for better, cross-cutting policy making is to succeed, it will not do so by implementing digital solutions that ignore the legal, accountability, and budgetary structure of government. Instead, the focus needs to be on making the whole work better, particularly the Cabinet-based decision-making system.
Change the mindset
We suggest the above changes are supported by a target to halve the number of transactions on Gov.uk by 2030. The 30-year-old treadwheel of bureaucratic paper transactions and paper forms being moved online has little to do with “transformation”. Far from it - government needs to be removing the administrative burden, not digitising it.
This suggestion is, of course, a crude form of shorthand for implementing a better approach to technology — one that improves policy making, streamlines public administration, and produces better outcomes for citizens, businesses, and government alike.
Making it happen
No technological silver bullet can solve the county’s problems, be that “digital” or “AI” or “data driven” systems. But technology can make a significant difference if integrated thoughtfully into the core “business” of governing through policy making.
We believe there’s little cost involved in adopting and developing our ideas, yet significant potential benefits to the core functioning of government. Systems thinking will help liberate policy design thinking from its techno-solutionist straitjacket, improve collaborative working, identify good quality relevant data, and support a tailored approach to procurement. The result will be policy design that finds better, more technology-enabled, creative ways to deliver outcomes that reduce the administrative burden, ensure inclusivity, and meet statutory administrative requirements.
The good news is that guidance and expertise already exist to help deliver these changes. By making smart use of these resources, the next administration can reset and re-prioritise the long-promised, digitally enabled modernisation of our public institutions. Doing so will require strong ministerial leadership and orchestration: to ensure a clear, relevant, and consistent political approach; to bring the right people in the right place to work together; and, most importantly, to help the next government deliver its policy pledges promptly and effectively.
About the authors
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.
Philip Sinclair works with leaders in business, government, and academia. He is a senior adviser at the European Commission and advises governments and businesses on policy for innovation and growth, entrepreneurship, science, and industry.
Paul Waller is an independent researcher specialising in the use of technology in government and public administration, and the regulation of emerging technology such as AI. He was formerly a policy civil servant involved in various phases of digital government, and before that ran an AI R&D group in industry. He has qualifications in mathematics, statistics, and management.
This article is a summary of a more detailed series of recommendations being developed by the authors.
Read more about digital government
- UK ranks third in OECD Digital Government Index - The UK has dropped from overall second to third place in the international digital government survey, but fails to feature in the top 10 countries when it comes to having a data-driven public sector.
- The digital education problem at the heart of government transformation - A recent NAO report on digital government highlights some progress and ongoing challenges – but Whitehall needs to tackle a more fundamental flaw if it’s to deliver true digital change.
- Rebooting digital government to (finally) bring it into the 21st century - Nearly 30 years after the UK's first pan-government website, what has been achieved in digital government - and how do we make it better?