Main content

Ditch digital by default; just go digital - full stop!

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan September 2, 2013
Ditch digital by default; just go digital - full stop! Stark advice for the UK government.

Forget digital-by-default; go for digital, full stop, to accelerate a move to government-as-a-platform.

That's the stark, but intriguing recommendation to the UK government from the influential think tank Policy Exchange in a report released this week entitled Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger.

The thrust of Policy Exchange's thesis is to cut to the chase: eliminate all paper-based interaction within and between government departments and switch exclusively to digital channels.

It states:

Moving paper up and down the country is slow and expensive. Government should eliminate paper for interactions within and between departments, and switch exclusively to digital channels for public services that do not need a face-to-face interaction with the public. Where face-to-face contact is important it should be strengthened.

This would, estimates Policy Exchange, save the government £70 billion a year by 2020.

Other key recommendations include adoption of electronic purchasing to make procurement more efficient. Those with long memories may recall we've tried this one before round about dot com time when the push towards eprocurement faltered when it ran into opposition from procurement managers across government who were rather too fond of their paper chasing.

By 2020 government needs to have moved from open data as a fringe activity to total data as its guiding philosophy, extending lean start-up methods as a preferred way of working, incorporate digital and data skills into the Civil Service competency framework.

The report argues the case for this total data approach to encompass a wide variety of data users:

Government should open up all non-personal public sector data with persistent uniform resource identifiers (URIs), as a foundation for accountability and economic growth. Government should also start buying in big data analytics on a payment- by-results basis, to flush out savings that the public sector has thus far been unwilling or unable to realise.

Government should be required to issue and accept secure electronic proofs for addressing, tax and the like, which Policy Exchange pitches as a necessary condition for fully digitising government services.

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for all government services need to be exposed to allow anyone to write apps capable of communicating with government systems, opening up a new wave of innovation as developers compete to meet user needs.

Cultural challenges

Above all there's a need to restore a culture of excellence and innovation in government, says Policy Exchange:

By 2020 government needs to have developed more outstanding leaders who can drive digital into the DNA of public sector organisations. Government should increase interchange so that most senior staff have recent external experience, and introduce more fixed-term appointments for senior staff, so that people are crystal clear on their objectives and have a strong incentive to master digital tools and approaches.

The digital age will put a premium on collaboration, learning and innovation. Organisations that are able to leverage the talent and curiosity of their people and the power of open networks will find themselves at a distinct advantage – and this applies as much to government as it does to the private sector.

In total there are 14 specific recommendations:

  • Eliminate paper for all interactions within and between government departments.
  • Switch exclusively to digital for public services that do not need a face- to-face interaction with the public.
  • Make electronic purchasing based on open standards the default for government departments.
  • Require government to issue and accept secure electronic proofs for addressing, tax and the like.
  • Expose Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for all government services.
  • Extend lean start-up methods as a preferred way of working in government
  • Incorporate digital and data skills, and basic scientific literacy, into the core Civil Service competency framework.
  • Put a double lock on policies that are not testable by default.
  • Open up all non-personal public sector data with persistent URIs.
  • Buy in big data analytics on a payment-by-results basis.
  • Further increase interchange so that most senior staff have recent external experience.
  • Introduce more fixed tenure appointments for senior civil servants, starting with new appointments.
  • Enrol the top 10% of staff at all grades in an explicit innovation drive.
  • Allow more central government teams to spin out in partnership with high-tech start-ups and other partners.

Chris Yiu, author of the report, said:

"The public sector has historically been slower and less effective when it comes to taking advantage of technology, data and the internet. The web is already inseparable from most people's day-to-day lives, and this will only increase in the years ahead.

“Switching to digital for everything the government does would generate billions of pounds worth of savings that could be used to cut the deficit or improve public services.”

He added:

"Government is changing, but the world around it is changing faster. With the internet all around us, it's reasonable to expect government to embrace digital. Our public leaders need to rise to the challenge, or risk a chasm between new and old tearing the whole system apart."

Credit where credit is due and the Policy Exchange rightly congratulates the government's progress on reform, spearheaded by the Government Digital Service. However, it says that it is only the 'end of the beginning'.

Mike Bracken, Executive Director at the Government Digital Service (GDS), says:

"We've made huge progress since setting up GDS, working with other departments to release GOV.UK and start making services digital by default. But there is still significant potential to drive digital into everything the government does. This report is a timely reminder that our digital journey is only just beginning, and should inspire everyone in government to aim high when deciding where we go next."

But the Policy Exchange warns:

"The operating environment that the government is facing has changed dramatically. And at its core, government remains a largely analogue business, living on borrowed time in a digital world."


It's a bold vision of where digital government could go and the benefits that could be reaped.

My only concern is that implementing it at the pace that the report recommends demands a bloodier revolution than the one currently underway across the UK public sector.

The achievements of GDS and others - such as the G-Cloud team - are significant steps forward.

Yes, we could wish for things to move quicker at times, but we're dealing with institutional torpor here.

We've outsourced so much of the skills base from government that it's going to take time to get the right people back in situ to achieve all the digital goals.




A grey colored placeholder image