British Government launches new Digital and Data Strategy - plenty of promises, but gaps in detail

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez June 9, 2022
The British Government appears to understand that ‘digital and data’ are important, but it doesn’t seem to be willing to make the tough decisions to drive the change that’s required.

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The British Government - or more specifically, the government’s Central Digital and Data Office - has this week launched a new digital and data strategy that outlines the government’s plans for transforming services, skills and systems through to 2025. For those that have been following Britain’s digital ambitions for a number of years, the latest strategy may prompt a sense of deja vu, as a lot of the ideas appear to have been repurposed from previous iterations.

It includes commitments to identifying specific services to transform, upskilling the civil service, and unlocking data to be shared across government. 

However, upon reading the (rather brief) document in full, it could be argued that there is a lack of detail around how the plans will be executed, and how the government will be measuring progress against its commitments over the next three years. 

That’s not to say that there aren’t positives to be taken from the strategy. For instance, it’s promising that the plans have been developed by a Digital and Data Board, which is made up of a forum of Permanent Secretaries. In the past the government has run into roadblocks when plans have been dictated from the center, without collaboration from across government - so a collective willingness to implement change could work in the strategy’s favour this time around. 

However, it’s also interesting that the Government Digital Service, which for the past decade or so has been the main central driver of digital change across Whitehall, only gets one mention throughout the document - and only in reference to a service it is responsible for, rather than its role in helping to deliver the strategy. 

The document starts by saying: 

Technology has revolutionised every aspect of our society and our economy, including the way that we deliver our public services, helping to make people’s lives easier and safer. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has seen further strides in the use of innovative new technology, such as the NHS COVID Pass which enabled UK citizens to travel, ensuring their health and safety.

Our ambition is to go beyond these pockets of brilliant practice. We must deliver policy that has a real impact on people’s lives - not just in a crisis, but every day and for everyone. When people order their groceries, book a holiday or check their bank accounts, they expect and receive a seamless and easy experience. The same should be true of government services.

This isn’t anything we haven’t heard before, and is something that the government has been talking about for 10 years or more (over which time significant progress has been made). 

However, the report adds that previous attempts at digital transformation in government have had mixed success, and that they have lacked specificity, cross government endorsement, clear lines of accountability and business ownership. The report states that “former flagship programmes have slowly shut down and failed to deliver results”. 

I’m not sure that those responsible for the likes of GOV.UK and GOV.UK Notify, nor the teams that have been responsible for building digital capability and skills across government, would agree - but that’s now the official line that’s being taken. 

It’s also quite amusing that the strategy says that by shifting to more “digitally-enabled ways of working” will help the government’s Levelling Up agenda, by enabling the Civil Service to work across locations and recruit more equally from across the UK, when certain Ministers spend a lot of their time lambasting civil servants for not being physically present in the office, touting nonsense that working from home isn’t as effective. So, which is true? 

Commenting on the strategy’s release, Paul Willmott, Executive Chair of the Central Digital and Data Office, said: 

Digital and data are the essential building blocks of all successful organisations. It’s only possible to make effective decisions, meet customer needs and respond to new challenges and opportunities when you have modern technology, real-time access to high quality data, a cadre of skilled digital talent and the right conditions for innovation to thrive.

People expect government services to be as good as the best online experiences in the private sector. Rising to meet these expectations will require change on a scale that government has never undertaken before.

This roadmap is an ambitious statement of intent. It represents a new era of collaboration on digital transformation and marks a step-change in the digital and data agenda. Written collaboratively, it sets out a collective vision under-pinned by real, tangible commitments and actions, to be delivered by all government departments.

The commitments

The strategy states that this roadmap is “designed to be different”, thanks to the creation of the Central Digital and Data Office and the collaboration between Permanent Secretary leadership. And whilst it recognizes progress made over the past decade, it highlights that there is still plenty of work to be done. It states: 

Our services are often slow, difficult to use and expensive to deliver. Departments operate many competing digital identity solutions as well as duplicative identity verification transformation programmes. Data quality is inconsistent and frequently poor and effective data sharing between departments is limited. We are held back by costly and outdated technology and we do not leverage our scale in technology procurement. 

We are failing to attract top digital talent or to build capability in-house at scale and our leaders are not yet as skilled in digital leadership as they need to be. Our funding structures and ways of working do not enable or incentivise agile delivery methodologies.

In terms of what the strategy hopes to achieve, it outlines the following “potential savings”:

  • Over £1 billion through digital transformation of services, by eliminating the unnecessary costs of paper-based services and processes.

  • £101 million net per year by the end of 2025 through the rollout of a competitive digital remuneration framework, reducing attrition rates of highly sought after specialists and our dependence on expensive contractor and consultant labour.

  • Significant savings by leveraging government’s combined purchasing power and reducing duplicative procurement, to shift to a ‘buy once, use many times’ approach to technology.

These are similar ideas that have been touted over the past decade and very much in line with what the Government Digital Service has always supported when talking about a ‘Government-as-a-Platform’ approach. 

The latest strategy is split up into five missions, which are outlined as follows: 

Mission One - Transformed public services that achieve the right outcomes

This mission is sponsored by Jo Farrar, Chief Executive of HM Prison & Probation Service and Second Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice, and states:

  1. By 2025, at least 50 of the government’s top 75 identified services will move to a ‘great’ standard, against a consistent measure of service performance

  2. For key government priorities, the government will embed digital approaches and cross-functional teams into policy design and delivery 

Mission Two - One Login for government

Following the cancellation of GOV.UK Verify, and sponsored by Jim Harra, Permanent Secretary at HM Revenue and Customs, this mission states that: 

  1. All departments will confirm an adoption strategy and roadmap for One Login for Government by April 2023 and their services will have begun onboarding by 2025.

Mission Three - Better data to power decision making

Sponsored by Professor Sir Ian Diamond, National Statistician and Chief Executive of the UK Statistics Authority, it stats that all departments will: 

  1. Work to make all ‘critical’ data assets available and in use across government through trusted APIs and platforms such as GDX and IDS.

  2. Have access to a Data Marketplace (including a Data Catalogue, standards and governance models) to rival best practice across public and private sectors.

  3. Agree to co-develop and adopt a single data ownership model for ‘critical’ data assets.

  4. Ensure that 50% of ‘high priority’ data quality issues are resolved within the period defined by a cross-government framework.

Mission Four - Efficient, secure and sustainable technology

Sponsored by Laurence Lee, Second Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, it states:

  1. All departments agree to promote a ‘buy once, use many times’ approach to technology, including by making use of a common code, pattern and architecture repository for government.

  2. All ‘nationally important’ systems will be resilience tested annually and will be hosted, or plans will be developed for them to be hosted, in appropriate environments aligned to the cross-government cloud and technology infrastructure strategy.

  3. All ‘red-rated’ legacy systems identified through an agreed cross-government framework will have an agreed remediation plan in place.

  4. All new services shall comply with the common approach to Secure By Design.

  5. CDDO and departments will jointly create and agree to increase mobile access to government services through creation of a mobile app strategy.

  6. Government will systematically identify and capture opportunities arising from emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and quantum computing.

  7. All departments will increase sustainability throughout the lifecycle of their technology and services.

Mission Five - Digital skills at scale

Sponsored by Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, it states:

  1. Departments will strengthen their offer to existing and prospective talent by aligning role definitions to the DDaT (Digital, Data and Technology) capability framework, aligning to the DDaT Pay Framework as appropriate[footnote 1] and embedding a government wide recruitment standard which reduces average time to hire to 30 days.

  2. Over 90% of senior civil servants will be upskilled on digital and data essentials, with learning embedded into performance and development standards.

  3. Over 90% of DDaT professionals will undertake DDaT related training at least once a year and will record their skills, to support the prioritisation of DDaT learning interventions and associated investment.

  4. All departments will set an objective to reduce their digital and data vacancies to under 10% of total DDaT headcount.

  5. All departments will have a roadmap and committed date for reflecting the diversity of the UK population across their DDaT workforce.

My take

The report states that the Digital and Data Board, which is made up of the Permanent Secretaries mentioned, will review and report on progress every six months and monitor efficiencies. It adds that each cross-government commitment is being “translated into quantifiable, department-level targets”, which progress will be measured. It also states that the Central Digital and Data Office will work with departments and the Treasury to align criteria for spend approval to the roadmap. 

However, what concerns me is the lack of granular detail here. No real mention of what targets the Permanent Secretaries will be measuring themselves against, nor what spend controls will be put in place to drive change. Equally, some of the language in the mission statements is particularly vague without links to what it actually means. For instance, what are these ‘critical’ data assets? They may already be defined, but it isn’t made clear in the document. Also, the services being transformed will move to a ‘great’ standard - but how is that defined? 

Whilst almost everything mentioned in the document is welcome, the lack of detail is somewhat concerning, as it makes it hard for the government to be held accountable when it comes to measuring progress. Equally, much of this isn’t new, we’ve heard many of these ambitions many times before. But I do hold hope that the permanent secretary involvement may help to drive some real change - cross-government buy-in is welcome. We will be following this closely over the coming months. 

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