Leaked Government Transformation Strategy leaves lots to the imagination

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez December 11, 2016
The leaked document suggests the government is going soft on targets, measurable outcomes and is generally taking a lighter-touch approach than expected.

government parliament
For the best part of 2016 the government has been promising the release of an up to date Digital Strategy that will focus efforts on digital transformation for the remainder of the current parliament, up until 2020.

Given the upheaval experienced at the Government Digital Service over the summer, with executive director Stephen Foreshew-Cain being replaced with new director general Kevin Cunnington, the document has faced significant delays.

However, it is expected that the new strategy will be released by the end of the week (just before the Christmas break, read into that PR strategy what you will) - and diginomica has been leaked a background version prior to official publication.

Whilst the document - which has been given the new title of Government Transformation Strategy - may still be amended prior to its official release, we are told that it has gone through all the necessary pre-approval Whitehall hurdles, which suggests otherwise.

The change in title from Digital Strategy to Transformation Strategy suggests that the document is meant to incorporate broader transformation of Whitehall systems and processes - which is welcome. And the document certainly is wide ranging, with detail that gives you a decent understanding of the government’s intentions.

However, that being said, those hoping for measurable detail and action plans for such problem areas such as data, breaking up legacy contracts, and cross-department collaboration, may well be disappointed. It favours more of a blue-print approach, that is intended to guide departments, rather than force them.

As it currently stands, the Government Transformation Strategy is very weak on targets, specifics and measurable outcomes. There is plenty of wiggle room in there for those at the helm to turn around in 2020 and say they’ve done a good job - because there is little in the document for us and others to hold them to account on.

Compared to the previous strategy in 2013, and the general approach to digital in previous years, it appears that the government wants to use more carrot and less stick. The impression created is that a softer more flexible approach is being introduced.

Whilst departments in the past had been introduced to instruments such as a cloud first policy, spend controls, targets for working with SMEs and pressure to focus on high-value transactions, the new strategy favours a top-level approach that leaves departments with scope to incorporate some of their more traditional methods.

It’s worth saying at this point that I interviewed Government Digital Service Director General Kevin Cunnington a few days ago, prior to the write up of this story on the leaked document, and his take will be published later this week on diginomica. To be fair to Cunnington, his approach is very focused on broader transformation and he admitted that the strategy would be lacking in measurable outcomes.

That being said, we at diginomica feel that the document, as it stands, leaves plenty of caveats and gaps that could result in a slower approach to digital transformation than could have been sought.

Top level view

The Government Digital Service

The 56 page document begins by providing some background on how the Internet is changing the way that consumers interact with companies and governments, and points to some of the work carried out by the Government Digital Service to date.

However, it quickly highlights that it is “not inevitable” that parts of government which serve people continuously will be automatically digital transformed. It points to the fact that unlike some other organisations, government has a duty to protect citizens’ identity and maintain national security. It states that this means that “while it should be straightforward, renewing a passport requires much more stringent security processes than an online purchase does”.

In other words, making government digital is harder. Some would disagree with this, but that’s the line taken in this document.

It goes on to state that technology is not the limiting factor in transformation, but rather the people are more important. This strategy, therefore, places a greater emphasis on “people as agents of transformation” than previous years, with the document noting that “having the right organisational development skills and strong change leadership is as important has having data scientists or developers”.

This could well be perceived as a dig at GDS, which has been criticised by some as becoming a bit of a centralised ‘software shop’.

The strategy also highlights that departments have been operating in silo and that different departments are operating at different levels of maturity with a misaligned focus - resulting in different approaches across Whitehall.

The aim, is now for the “business change strategy and digital strategy…to considered as the same thing”.

The report states:

We need to create the conditions for transformation to be successful; the way we operate, govern, approve and deliver needs to match our level of ambition. This means that departments’ transformation plans will need to be produced collaboratively to become increasingly interwoven.

The vision

The strategy’s tagline, as it were, is that to “serve the people of the United Kingdom better we want to create a responsive state that can change at pace and at scale”, with the need to “transform the relationship between citizens and the state - putting more power in the hands of citizens and being more responsive to their needs”.

A vision for the strategy is laid out and summarised with the following five points (we have summarised them for brevity):

• citizens, businesses and other uses have a better, more coherent experience when interacting with government services
• elected governments can make a more immediate impact, delivering on policy goals by providing services and information more quickly - and the ability to change delivery quickly if the policy changes
• the cost and time to build, change and run government is reduced, saving public money and allowing government to respond faster to socio-economic and political change
• improve trust between citizen and state. Giving citizens confidence that their personal data is secure and used in ways they expect.
• build secure systems by default

That tricky back-end

One of the main criticisms often squared at GDS is that its ‘digital services’ are nothing more than lipstick on a pig. A pretty front end that often still relies on a back-end that is decades old. GDS has said in the past that these services were intended to show people what was possible, with the aim of moving further down the stack once confidence was built.

The Transformation Strategy identifies the back-end as its central focus. It notes:

They have started to transform the culture of how they deliver services. While this has been a great success, in many cases they have not yet been able to transform the ‘back end’ of their organisations: those behind-the-scenes parts of their operations which deliver the services.

While the digital exemplars from the previous parliament delivered excellent web interfaces that better meet user needs, the back-office processes and systems were often left unchanged. In some cases, the online service passes the contents of a web-form to back-office staff, who must then rekey the data into an existing system.

The world is also not standing still. Following the vote to leave the European Union, the need for government and the wider public sector to be agile and responsive to a changed environment across (or sometimes redefining) existing departmental boundaries has become even more important.

This has brought clearly into focus that the digital challenge is not simply about online interactions - but fundamentally about how departments operate on the inside.

The document notes that many departments have reached the limits of how far they can transform

government as a platform
without changing how the organisation works. It states that many services span multiple central government bodies, local authorities, devolved administrations, the third sector or outsourced services - and adds “we now need to focus on how public sector bodies work on the inside”.

Much of what the business transformation section of the strategy talks about is to be expected. It talks about bringing policy development and service design closer together - something GDS has highlighted previously - and it points to focusing on internal processes, rather than digital add-ons, as well as designing for a broad definition of users and joining up departments and the considering the whole of the public sector.

The focus on Government-as-a-Platform remains, and takes up a significant chunk of the document. There had been concerns that these building block components may be diluted down under Cunnington, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The document recognises that whilst services that have a high number of transactions can build a business case for transformation, those with a small number of transactions need cheap commodity services to utilise.


Plenty of this is unsurprising. In fact, one could argue that the top level strategy hasn’t shifted as much as expected. There is definitely a greater focus on the idea of ‘transformation’ as opposed to ‘digital’, with the emphasis being on changing the institutions themselves, rather than just focusing on the services. However, there isn’t anything shocking about the strategy.

In fact, it notes that “transformation is a continuous activity” and that “2020 does not represent an end date for transformations”. The document sums up the priorities up until 2020, however, as:

• design and deliver joined up services
• deliver the major transformation programmes
• establish a whole government approach to transformation
And this is where I take issue with the document. How are these priorities being measured? There isn’t enough detail provided for us to measure in 2020 how well the government is achieving these aims.

For example, the document does highlight 18 digital services that it wants to be available with clear users journeys from GOV.UK by 2020 - including applying for a passport, a visa, getting your MOT, getting a divorce and making tax digital. However, the document also notes that these “are provisional and subject to change”, giving the government a nice get out of jail free card.

However, it points to the scale of the challenge for the larger transformation programmes. The strategy says:

These programmes are making large scale changes to government that are much more than digitising transactions. Some are making significant changes to the way whole departments operate. Some are creating new organisations or fundamentally changing business models.

And it seems that agile-all-the-way may not be the go-to approach for these large scale projects, which may concern some. It notes:

Major transformations must therefore adopt appropriate elements of both agile and major programme disciplines at different times according to what the best methodology is for different aspects of the programme.

The role of legacy

The strategy also has a section titled “recognising the role of old technology and have a plan”. There are a couple of sentences in this section that will likely raise a few eyebrows. Previously GDS has spoken about the need to exit the government’s lengthy outsourcing contracts - such as HMRC’s Aspire - and break them down into smaller, more manageable components.

This strategy does still seem to be part of the government’s plan. However, this section of the report does appear to introduce some caveats that are a long way away from the previous ‘no more extensions to outsourcing deals’ rule that had been introduced in previous years.

The document states that the government needs to have more control over the technology it uses, where it does say that this means it will continue with its programme of leaving large IT outsourcing contracts. However, it also states:

Moving away from this form of contract does not solve the problem of legacy technology, though. As soon as new technology is deployed it starts to age and begins its journey to becoming ‘legacy’ - technology that is in some way no longer effective. For example, it might be challenging to secure, it might use old interfaces making it difficult to integrate with other systems or it might start to cost more to support than it would cost to replace.

This means that upgrade of old (but otherwise fit-for-purpose) systems or like-for-like changes in components can be valid approaches, if transformation as part of service redesign is not possible currently, or where replacement would not make strategic sense.

It goes on to say that to replace legacy technology “progressively at the right pace”, it will continue to build a shared understanding of: what outcomes government is working towards; the technology currently in use and how it relates to the services it supports; and how it bought and supported.

Again, this strikes me as vague and gives the government an out for when the going gets tough. It has introduced a significant amount of grey area here that gives departments scope to carry on as they are for extended periods of time, in my opinion.

Other important points

The document is long and wide-ranging, so it is difficult to cover all of it here in great detail. Once it is published, we will link to it for everyone to read through at their own leisure. However, there are a number of other points worth highlighting in the strategy.

For example, skills has been a significant challenge for Whitehall - with government competing against much higher paid jobs in the capital. GDS has done a very good job of attracting some great talent to the organisation, but thousands of other skilled workers are needed across departments.

Whilst departments such as DWP have done a good job of up-skilling thousands of civil servants for digital roles, huge gaps in capability remain and there has been arguments for the government to rethink job functions and pay strategies so as to attract the best talent. This has been taken into account by the new Transformation strategy.

It claims that it will “grow a skilled body of civil servants who have deep expertise in digital, data and technology (DDaT) by establishing:

• a single set of DDaT job families across central government
• a pay strategy and framework for specialist roles in central government
• common job descriptions and guidance on how to recruit more effectively for specific roles

This is one of the more detailed areas of the report, where the government seems to be providing specifics on action plans for up-skilling the civil service. There is still little detail on numbers of specific job roles in certain areas, but there seems to be a framework in place for getting the right people into the roles.

There is also detail in the strategy of how the government plans to make effective use of data. Interestingly, it notes that it plans to hire a Chief Data Officer to lead on data use - following the recent departure of data director Paul Maltby.

It also plans to set up a new Data Advisory Board to align efforts to make the best use of data across government, as well as plans to make it easier for citizens to view and, if necessary, correct data about them when using transactional public services. Plans are still in place for the creation of a ‘national data infrastructure of registers’ - authoritative lists that are held once across government.

The strategy seems to recognise the importance of getting the data element right. It notes:

Data is a critical resource for enabling more efficient, effective government and public services that respond to users’ needs. It is the foundation upon which everything else rests.

When government makes effective use of data, we make better policy and deliver better, more tailored services for users. For example, data can be used in real-time by front-line staff to ensure the person they are serving gets the best possible support to meet their needs.

Sharing private data between different parts of government has significant benefits for
citizens and businesses and is critical to delivering many essential services.

My take

As was hinted in the introduction to this piece, I am disappointed by the new Transformation Strategy. That’s not to say that anything that is said within the strategy is ‘wrong’ - quite the opposite, I tend to agree with most of the rhetoric. Wide scale transformation is needed, back-end systems need to be modernised, the civil service needs to be up-skilled and data needs to be organised across government.

But did we not already know this 12 months ago?

I think what’s disappointing is that GDS has previously provided departments and observers with a very clear framework for which it plans to operate within - with clear targets and measurable outcomes. There has also always been clear instruments it can use to drive change - cloud first, spend controls, limiting contract extensions, savings targets, etc.

This is what is distinctly lacking from the new strategy. Instead of a clear guideline for everyone to work towards, it reads more like a top-level corporate document that provides plenty of wiggle room for later U-turns. I may be being a bit too sceptical, but hey, that’s my job.

I’m also aware that there are significant political games still ongoing at the top of the this agenda, which makes me nervous. Despite what is said publicly, this digital transformation play doesn’t have the buy-in everywhere and the game playing may well get in the way of effective delivery.

Will less stick still get the job done? Has the civil service embedded enough cultural change to continue with wide scale transformation without harsh controls in place? I’m not so sure.

Keep an eye on diginomica for the write up of my interview with GDS director general Kevin Cunnington - which will go live in the coming days and will shed more light on his strategy for the department.


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