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Is it business as usual for government digital transformation?

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 24, 2015
A setting out of the stall of Matt Hancock, the new Minister for the Cabinet Office. Is it business as usual for UK government digital transformation?

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Matt Hancock

In the aftermath of the May General Election in the UK, one of the changes that occurred was that the Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude stepped down.

This was important from a digital transformation perspective as Maude had been a consistent and compelling advocate for change in the way the public sector bought and deployed IT and delivered citizen-facing services. Without Maude at the helm, many have been wondering, will the digital revolution he was enforcing continue on track?

This morning Maude’s successor Matt Hancock took to the stage at the National Digital Conference 2015 in London and provided perhaps the most detailed insight yet as to how things will progress at a critical time for the UK public sector as most of the legacy, ‘old world’ IT and outsourcing contracts start to wind down.

Hancock began by talking about the scale of the challenge faced:

One of the biggest questions for government today is how do we use that technology to govern better? How do we drive digital in government to improve the lives and the finances of millions?

We can’t copy and paste. On digital government we, and a handful of other countries, are the source code. There isn’t a playbook for this, so over the last five years we’ve had to innovate and experiment, seeing what works and what doesn’t.

There are, he went on, a series of principles that have formed and these need to be adhered to, beginning and ending with simplicity:

I can’t stress this enough: simplicity is the end. Digital is just the means. The point of using complex technology is not to make things more complex, but to make them easier: for the public, for frontline staff and for government itself.

For the public, when government services are on paper they’re almost inevitably designed for the demands of the machine, rather than the needs of individual users. If you want to access a service you have to fill out a form. Many of the questions aren’t aimed at you, but at the small minority who want to exploit the system. Yet everyone has to plough through them. It’s a dragnet approach and it’s why paper government means a one-size-fits-all service.

Digital technology can help to get around that mindset, he stated:

For example, if a welfare claim is being made from a non-UK IP address, that sets alarm bells ringing and we can ask the claimant more questions.

The flip side is we can then design the system to make life easier for everyone else, with fewer hoops to jump through. And because digital forms talk back, we can also tackle costly error, prompting users: ‘did you really mean that’ if the answer doesn’t look right.

But services don’t just need to be user-friendly, they need to be Whitehall-friendly so that government officials will see the value in a new approach:

There are around 700 interactions between government and citizen, many of which could be digitised. Yet one of the biggest barriers to widespread adoption of digital services is that it’s time-consuming and expensive for departments to build the underlying infrastructure.

That’s what ‘Government as a platform’ is designed to tackle. Many of the most successful companies in the world take a platform-based approach, companies like Google, Apple and Paypal. We too are building a common set of platforms, core digital plumbing which can be used by services across government.

Whether you’re tracking a passport, or a driving license application, a common platform has the potential to give better service at a lower cost. It makes life simpler for public servants too, freeing them to focus on what really matters: delivering their core service. And with common platforms it’s not just that we bring new services online quicker, we can also rebuild them quicker if they’re not working out as planned.

Iterative thinking

That brought him on to his second principle - iteration. No more big bang IT, but instead lots of small teams of developers delivering small prototypes, watching user behavor and getting feedback, then adding incremental improvements. He cited as an example the Office of National Statistics (ONS) website, once derided by the mainstream media as a national embarrassment to the UK:

A small, highly skilled team built a new alpha version in 3 months and it went live just before Christmas. The feedback has been fantastic, and the ONS team are about to finish their beta version, catering to the needs of everyone from A-level students to academic economists, at a fraction of the cost of the original.

hancock matt

An iterative approach also has implications for Whitehall’s traditional approach to policy design, observed Hancock:

Traditionally, policymakers relied on a model of human behavior borrowed from neo-classical economics: one in which rational well-informed individuals, responding to incentives, always made rational well-informed choices. This allowed for confident predictions about the take-up of a new scheme, or the impact of a new regulation. Confident, but wrong. In fact the only thing you can be confident about is the predictions will be wrong.

Because real-life isn’t like that. People aren’t rational. Some schemes sink without a trace. Most regulations have unintended consequences.
In a digital world we can test our core policy assumptions easily and cheaply, building a representative sample of users, presenting them with a working model of the new service, then using data and feedback loops to iron out the problems we can’t foresee. We pave the path people travel.

Hancock’s final principle is, of course, transformation and specifically the removal of the paper-based government structure that’s been in place, largely unchanged, since the 12th century. Hancock declared:

For the first time, we are in a position to build digital foundations: made of data not paper, holding up platforms not silos. Common registers, common payments platforms, and common license systems, all based on common data standards.

This digital infrastructure is the modern equivalent of the canals and railways that made industrialisation possible. And once it’s established we can build platforms on top: integrated public services with the citizen at their heart.

He concluded:

This is our chance to build a new state, crafted around the needs of the user. Using the best and most innovative technology to cut costs and improve services. Not the all-encompassing state of the 20th century, but a state you can hold in the palm of your hand.

As if to show that the onward march never ceases, the symbol of transformation is no longer the iPhone in your hand, but miniaturized in the iWatch on your wrist.

My take

A good speech and some sound basic principles that are reassuringly on message with the Maude era. There were a few odd omissions. No direct reference was made to the role of the Government Digital Service (GDS) - although indirectly its successes were on view - and there was an equally notable absence of discussion of the G-Cloud or the Digital Marketplace. Maude would always point to the G-Cloud as a symbol of progress. Is it so out of favor? Surely not?

But the thing that was really missing for me was discussion of those big contracts nearing their end of life. Or rather, their assumed end of life. The government is committed to ever greater inclusion of SMBs in winning government contracts, but there’s been anecdotal evidence of the resistance to change by elements of the Whitehall establishment. This is a battle that must be won by Hancock and his team. It was one that Maude and his team were committed to, arguably to a fault perhaps with the emphasis placed on ‘oligopoly’ bashing. A reiteration of intent by Hancock on this point would have been welcome.

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