Mantras such as ‘Cloud First’ and ‘Digital by Design’ were grasped by GDS and the technology teams within particular departments, rather than by the policy teams across all departments. They succeeded in digitize existing services or operations, without reinventing the way that government as a whole operates. Silos were not broken down. Change was in many cases just superficial.
Many who believe that the ‘mandarinate’ is too resistant to change, are asking us to learn from what is happening in the private sector where the digital revolution appears to be happening in three waves:
Definition: It used to be a question of cloud or no cloud, but ‘cloud first’ changed this. Then there was an argument between private, hybrid, public, and multicloud architectures. Private and hybrid have offered poor returns, and multicloud with significant elements of public cloud is rapidly becoming the reality. The majority of workloads that can be moved to the cloud are gradually being migrated there, starting with the ‘low-hanging fruit’ from which savings can then be reinvested.
Progress: While the private sector has seen a quarter of all workloads already move to the cloud, the ratio is lower in central government (10%) and lower still elsewhere - such as local government or the NHS (1 or 2%). In addition, as a recent CIF / UKCloud report found, while the UK public sector is rapidly adopting cloud-based services, migration challenges and a lack of leadership and skills in the sector mean that the majority of organisations have yet to move beyond the ‘low-hanging fruit’.
Definition: In the private sector, transformation has been driven by innovators introducing radical new business models – such as AirBNB and Netflix. The greatest advances have been made by enterprises taking innovative new business approaches and supporting these with flexible technologies such as containers and cloud-native applications (rather than legacy applications that have simply been shifted to the cloud).
Progress: In the public sector, tentative steps have been made towards common services with initiatives such as GOV.UK’s Pay, Notify and Verfiy, but hardly any progress has been made to break down departmental siloes, rethink the way that services are delivered and introduce joined up government in the same way that the digital revolution is transforming industries elsewhere.
Definition: The final phase is to seek to harness Artificial Iintelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and Robotic Process Automation (RPA). In both the private and public sector there are plenty of jobs are ripe for automation Enabling the public sector to increase its investment in front line services. And while such jobs will be lost, new jobs will be created – typically ones that rely on human interaction and are often provided by the public sector – carers, teachers, etc.
Progress: We are starting to see greater integration and data sharing which will provide the datasets that will be needed for the analytics to drive AI, ML and RPA, but the progress towards any real kind of automation is embryonic at best. We have yet to really harness such technologies to enable the public sector to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of front line services.
Challenges and austerity
Each wave mentioned above has coincided with a set of financial challenges faced by the public sector. The financial realities faced by the coalition government spurred them into creating GDS and into embarking on the first wave of innovation – migrating to the cloud.
If today’s government is to break out of the cycle of perpetual austerity, then it needs to grasp the next wave and seriously commit to a phase of real business process transformation. And at some point will we see a government in the future that in order to overcome the challenges of an aging population will need to harness the third wave and exploit AI, ML and RPA to the full.
Each of these technology waves has been accompanied by a great deal of hype, but the benefits of cloud migration are already being realised, the potential gains from digital transformation are obvious to all and there is inevitably a great deal of benefit that will accrue from automation. It will take considerable leadership and vision if we are to avoid getting caught up in the hype each time and remain focused on the progression path. Baroness Lane-Fox and Lord Maude both appear concerned with the current direction and pace of the reform agenda, and they’re not alone.
Instead digital transformation, with a clear path from migration to transformation and then automation, might just be the cure-all that we seek, as long as we are able to find ways to overcome the cultural and structural barriers and to truly harness the potential of these technologies. We just need the right leadership to administer it. The thing is, it needs to be administered soon, at the right rate and in the right dose for the patient to make the best recovery.