Well, it’s finally here. After over a year of waiting, a number of leaks to the press, and rumoured rows over funding, the Cabinet Office has finally published its much delayed, and much anticipated, Transformation Strategy.
Initially dubbed as the government’s Digital Strategy 2.0, but later renamed as the Transformation Strategy, the document sets out the government’s vision up to 2020 and beyond for rethinking how Whitehall operates and how it delivers services to citizens.
Announced by Cabinet Office Minister Ben Gummer, the report outlines a number of priorities for departments for the next three years – including back-office redesign, skilling up the Civil Service, thinking about how government uses data, cross-department collaboration, and further work on Government-as-a-Platform.
The document also addresses how future technologies beyond 2020 – such as artificial intelligence and the Internet-of-Things – could further impact the public sector’s delivery of services.
Minister Ben Gummer said:
I want to see a revolution in the way we deliver public services – so that people up and down our country feel that government is at their service at every single stage in the journey.
That is why we are today publishing our Government Transformation Strategy, outlining our commitment to reshape government by ensuring millions of people are able to access online the services they need, whenever they need. We will deliver these changes while driving efficiencies wherever possible, making considerable savings for the taxpayer.
Only by transforming the relationship between the citizen and the state – so that the latter serves the former – will we deliver the Prime Minister’s commitment to build a country that works for everyone.
Among the list of services the government has committed to transforming, they include: HMRC’s making tax digital programme; checking your state pension online; applying for a passport online; applying to live or work in the UK digitally; and the new NHS.UK website, which will replace NHS Choices.
The report also highlights that the importance of the Strategy, following the vote last summer to leave the European Union. It states:
Increasingly, government departments will need to collaborate across traditional organisational boundaries. The vote to leave the European Union has heightened the need to be responsive and to be able to adapt to a changing environment.
To build services that run seamlessly across government we must take the next steps in transformation. We will strengthen our digital capability. Where it meets user needs and satisfies the appropriate safeguards, we will make data easier to share across government and ensure it is managed securely.
The report is incredibly wide ranging, but the following specific areas we believe are particularly noteworthy.
It was rumoured that the Transformation Strategy was put on hold by the Prime Minister’s office just before Christmas because of a row regarding funding for the new Digital Academy, which was being brought out of DWP and into the Government Digital Service.
DWP set up the Academy in 2014 and has since trained up thousands of Civil Servants to work on agile digital delivery projects. When we last spoke to GDS Director General Kevin Cunnington, he expressed his desire to utilise this model across the broader public sector, to skill up government workers across all departments.
However, diginomica/government was told that this was under threat because GDS had not received the funding to undertake the scaling up of the academy. But it seems that this has since been resolved, as the plans have made it into the final strategy. The document notes:
The integration of the Digital Academy into GDS will form an important part of this work. We will complete the transfer of the Digital Academy from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to GDS.
This will create a nationwide capability for providing digital training to civil servants and provide a platform to expand and enhance the training offered. We will explore opening up the Digital Academy to other parts of the public sector too (such as local authorities and devolved governments).
The government plans to grow a “skilled body” of civil servants that have deep expertise in digital, data and technology (DDaT) and plans to encourage this by setting up:
- a single set of DDaT job families across central government
- a pay strategy and framework for specialist roles in central government, to address recruitment and retention concerns across government and different parts of government competing with each other for a limited pool of people
- common job descriptions and guidance on how to recruit more effectively for specialist roles
There is also a commitment that the Office for National Statistics, the Government Office for Science and GDS will work together to establish a new Data Science Campus, which will operate as a hub for data science skills, and will create a new career path for data scientists in government.
The government will also create a “structured career development programme for DDaT” and it will emphasise the value of open exchange between departments, GDS and other central functions.
As we’ve highlighted time and time again, central to the government’s digital transformation plans is the need to get its data structures right, as well as set in place plans for how it can better work with citizen data across government.
Whitehall data is siloed and messy. Add to this to the fact that the general public currently don’t have a great deal of faith in government for how it uses its data, and you’ve got a situation whereby true transformation is very difficult. Data underpins everything that will require the Civil Service to genuinely change how it operates.
However, at present the government has been slow to make significant progress in this area. Whilst it has done some work to create new authoritative datasets, dubbed registers, which can be used to underpin new services – it still is lacking in leadership and there isn’t a clear strategy.
The Transformation Strategy goes some way to address this. It notes:
Sharing private data between different parts of government has significant benefits for citizens and businesses and is critical to delivering many essential services. Government must be more transparent about how we use data to develop policy and deliver services.
We must earn and retain the trust of citizens and provide reassurance that personal and sensitive data, such as health data, is treated safely, securely and ethically within appropriate governance frameworks. When we do share data, we must ensure that it is appropriate and done in such a way to ensure citizens’ privacy.
The pace of technological change means we can use ever more sophisticated, data-driven approaches to tackle our biggest public policy challenges. Technology offers huge opportunities to achieve better policy and service outcomes for citizens. However, while an approach might be possible technologically, it might not be appropriate for government to use it. As we transform government, we must ensure we retain public trust and confidence in our use of data.
To get to a point where the government can use data more effectively, it has said that it will continue to build a national infrastructure of registers, so that departments have an authoritative list of different types of data all held in one place. It also notes that once the Data Economy Bill is passed through Parliament, this will remove data sharing barriers in government, allowing more (safe) sharing to take place.
Equally, the Strategy commits to finally appointing a new Chief Data Officer – something that has been lacking for months now – and it has said that it will set up a new Data Advisory Board to align efforts to make the best use of data across government.
Procurement and process
There is some detail in the Strategy about creating modern workplaces for civil servants, where it notes that some departments, such as the Cabinet Office, have modern services where users can choose the best devices and software to meet their needs. But it highlights that this is a minority.
It states that “other departments are working largely independently and at a different pace”. It seems that the government wants to create an environment whereby civil servants can seamlessly move between departments and that working across departments becomes easier, through the implementation of standardised tools for the whole of the Civil Service.
There is also an indication that departments that create innovative tools should be willing to bear the burden of the cost of creating that tool and sharing it across government, instead of each department then creating the same or similar tools for themselves. In other words, the Civil Service needs to start thinking of itself as a single unit, rather than a set of siloed departments. Some of the priorities outlined include:
- have an environment in which teams can rapidly iterate policy and delivery
- be able to deliver new services that span departmental boundaries
- improve technology and services on a continuous basis rather than time-bound programme spending, helping government organisations to continually improve and innovate how they deliver those services
- recognise that when providing services to each other departments may need to bear the cost of changes to meet the needs of other departments
- recognise that it will often be more expensive for one department to build a service for all departments to share (where security considerations permit) than building one specifically for their own use – but cheaper than every department buying or building their own
It also goes on to say that GDS will continue to scrutinise buyers’ decisions, in an attempt to move away from large complex projects that need unpicking years down the line, and move towards a model of continuous improvement. The Strategy states:
We will help departments look at their spending decisions at an earlier stage and in the context of wider plans.
We will explore ways to allow more scrutiny of higher risk, cost or complexity projects and provide more freedom for experienced teams delivering things in line with standards.
Departments will continue to create forward views of their planned spend on digital and technology which will scrutinised by GDS. 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.
If there was any doubt about the future commitment to the Government-as-a-Platform approach, the Transformation Strategy goes some way to alleviate those concerns. It states that “cross government platforms and cross-government components are the future”.
The Strategy says that the government will continue to build on this platform concept – which has seen the creation of GOV.UK, Notify and Verify – and will ensure greater reuse of platforms and components across government.
It also outlines how, where it is right to do so, the government will to move towards common technology, where it will consume commodity hardware or cloud-based software. The Strategy reads:
We will work towards having a range of reusable components to make it quick, cheap and easy to assemble digital services. These will be a mixture of government-built components (both from departments and GDS) and common components that government can procure that are based around open standards.
In addition, the government is being explicit about the fact that it needs to move away from the legacy contracts of days gone by, which trapped departments into ageing technology and agreements that lacked innovation – all in an attempt to cut costs. The Strategy states:
Exiting legacy IT contracts is a precondition for all of this work. As we explain in business transformation not all old technology is toxic, but we need to have the right commercial models to effectively deliver the next stage of our transformation: shared platforms, components and business capabilities.
Having control over technology is a critical part of delivering this strategy. We cannot undertake business transformation, implement better workspace technology, make better use of data or use shared components without more control over our technology.
Our focus here is changing the way that we buy technology: creating a shared understanding of the commercial and supplier environment and being clear about the products and services we expect to need in the future.
Interestingly, the Transformation Strategy includes a section that looks at the government’s potential use of technology beyond 2020. It notes that whilst the current programmes are “very challenging and need the full support of government to be successful”, it will also spend a proportion of its time planning for work beyond the 2020 timeframe.
The Strategy states:
Transformation programmes typically have a long lead time, so it is critical that we begin to explore the work that will be conducted during the next Parliament, so we can take advantage of progress in technology. This will put us in a much stronger position to maintain the momentum on transforming government services and the way government operates, in line with the policy priorities of the government post 2020.
Obviously at this point in time the report doesn’t provide too much detail. However, it does hint at some of the technology areas that government may be impacted by. It has said it will investigate:
- how best to coordinate to deliver joined-up service as we increasingly devolve power to regions and nations
- the transformative potential of artificial intelligence and machine learning
- public sector use of health data and wearables
- appropriate use of biometrics
- risks and opportunities arising from the Internet of Things
- how to best audit and assure both the use of algorithms in delivering government services, and the guidance and legal framework for use of algorithms in process automation
- opportunities to better use geospatial data and Earth observation data
- as the government increasingly devolves power to regions and nations, it will consider how to best co-ordinate to deliver joined-up services
Firstly, I’m pleased that the report has finally been published. It was getting to a point where the Cabinet Office was running out of excuses for further delays and the whole situation was a bit ridiculous. But more importantly, progress for departments just isn’t possible unless they know what they’re working towards.
There are things in the strategy that I’m keen on. I like that the government is talking about departments finding/creating innovative services and then sharing these across departments, and being forced to take on the cost to do so. Duplication is a real problem for Whitehall, and if a culture of sharing can be created, that will solve a lot of issues. If anything, collaboration across borders is always a good way to solve problems more quickly.
The government needs to hurry up on its data agenda, however. It has been a year where it feels like very little has happened (albeit the work on registers is promising). Without getting that right, there’s no hope for the rest of it.
Equally, I was both pleased and surprised to see the Digital Academy made it into the final draft of the report. But there is such a significant skills gap when it comes to DDaT in Whitehall, that this is entirely necessary. GDS’ execution on the newly integrated Academy will be critical – if it gets that wrong, the type of transformation spoken about in the report will be a hell of a lot harder.
The report is wide ranging and we are going to need a few more days to digest it all – this is very much a ‘quick take’. Initial reactions are: good, I like what I see. But also: how are we going to measure this? When we get to 2020, how will we know if the government has achieved what it set out to do? I’m still not sure about that.
I’m also not sure that much of the Civil Service realises what this means for it. This is about fundamentally changing the institutions of Whitehall. And that, will not be easy. And it won’t be without resistance.
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