Getting the Digital Revolution back on the rails

Bill Mew Profile picture for user Bill Mew October 10, 2017
The UK government digital revolution has seen more than its fair share of wobbles of late. UKCloud's Bill Mew argues it's time to get back on track.

Last week the government announced that its Digital Service Standard is to be renamed the Government Service Standard, to reflect an ongoing revamp that will see its focus broadened beyond just transactional services.

The standard, which was previously streamlined from 26 points down to 18 in 2015, is now being redesigned.

In the wake of recent criticisms from Baroness Lane-Fox and Lord Maude, does this signal a recognition that the reform agenda, which has been overly focused on IT transformation rather than deeper organizational transformation, needs to refocus in order to get the Digital Revolution back on the rails?

Business transformation and e-government have been recurring themes in government for decades, evolving into digital transformation with the coalition in 2010, but progress on all forms of digital transformation have been somewhat limited.

The background

Those familiar with some of the history will know that as long ago as 1996 the Green Paper highlighted the minimal progress that had been to transform public services to make them "more accessible, more convenient, easier to use, quicker in response and less costly to the taxpayer.” 14 years later in 2010, Martha Lane Fox made a set of recommendations on which The Government Digital Service (GDS) was built and that have been central to the government’s digital strategy ever since.

GDS went on to become a model for other governments to follow, including in the USA and Australia, according to former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, under whose watch GDS was established and flourished. As Maude explained in a recent speech at Speaker’s House in Westminster: Britain went from being a country which was “a byword for expensive government IT car crashes” to last year being ranked top in the world by the UN for digital government.

Promising everything from a common website and common services, to cross-government platforms and an improved online experience, a series of initiatives and teams have optimistically set about breaking new ground, only to find themselves just tracing footprints on well-trodden paths, or reinventing and rediscovering the same things. Time and again the focus has been on tinkering with the technology rather than focusing on the underlying process and structures.

Pundits have described this as changing the livery on a series of horses that have ran progressively faster, rather than changing to a motor car.

Unfortunately, “for much of the ‘mandarinate’, this was an assault on their autonomy and empires. And what we know about empires is that they fight back. And boy, are they fighting back!” added Maude. “The mantra tends to be: ‘We definitely want to continue with the reforms. But they’re now embedded in the departments, and it’s definitely now safe to relax the central controls.’ “ Maude continued. “When you hear those words you know that what they really mean is that the reforms are embedded six feet under, and that the departments are cheerfully going back to their old ways.”

Where are we now?

Key figures such as Baroness Lane-Fox, the architect of GDS, and Lord Maude, its greatest champion, have recently been outspoken about the state of the UK government’s digital transformation and reform agenda, indicating that something may well be amiss.

GDS may still be extolling the same mantras that we have seen before – all about the move from a focus on simple digitisation to real government transformation. However, even when it had the full backing of Lord Maude of Horsham as Cabinet Office minister, it faced a real challenge. It may have had notable successes with the exemplar projects, but few of these successes involved real business process transformation or the successful dismantling of departmental silos.

More recently there has been an exodus of experienced staff from GDS and the concerns have been expressed by many, including Baroness Lane-Fox that “much good work being done to help the government modernise – and to make it work for people who live their lives digitally – is being dismantled.” And that “Departmental silos are creeping back, replicating cost and inefficiency and, most importantly, letting down citizens.”

A key role that GDS had was to bring to an end to the era of big outsourcing contracts. As any such contracts came up for renewal, GDS would seek more agile alternatives. It was always an ambitious objective, but it hasn’t always proven practical and the ‘big ticket’ legacy providers appear still to be holding their own. As the Financial Times has recently reported: there are hundreds of contracts expiring this year that are being renewed because civil servants are too busy with Brexit to focus on new and better-value tenders.

Baroness Lane-Fox also talked about the need for greater digital savvy among ministers and politicians as well as civil servants, without which there can be an urge to instinctively reach out for the ‘comfort blanket’ of the legacy providers.

If Baroness Lane-Fox and Lord Maude are to be believed, then something needs to be done to get the Digital Revolution back on the rails.

In the second part of this blog (tomorrow) I seek to plot a path forward, focusing on the technologies that might make this possible.

A grey colored placeholder image