Three principles for digital government transformation

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 14, 2016
Matt Hancock, Minister for the Cabinet Office, outlines his three principles for digital government transformation at the National Digital Conference 2016: Building the nation's digital DNA event in London.

Digital is the easy part of digital transformation. The hard part is the transformation.

It’s hardly the most original statement, but none the less true for that. It was the starting point message from the kick-off of today’s National Digital Conference 2016: Building the nation's digital DNA event in London.

Opening this year’s conference was Matt Hancock, Minister for the Cabinet Office. Last week we took a look at his Keith Joseph Lecture in which he talked at length about disruption in the digital economy. This was touched on in today’s keynote, so we’ll skip over that.

Of more interest was his laying out of what he called:

three guiding principles, based on what we’ve learnt from the last six years of digital transformation in central government.

(By ‘we’, of course, he means the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service (GDS). Hanock himself has only been responsible minister for just over a year.)

These principles are:

  • start small then scale up
  • treat tech as the means rather than the end
  • treat data as a public service in its own right rather than an afterthought


Start small because the best way to convince naysayers is to show them something that works. Hancock pointed to the example of GDS which was, he said:

deliberately conceived as an insurgent start-up bolted onto the Civil Service, not some grand Ministry of Technology.

Rather than tell GDS to go out and disrupt the entire public sector, we gave them a specific set of high volume transactions to transform.

The idea was to demonstrate clearly to the rest of government not just the technology, but the underlying methodology that made it work - agile working, user research, A/B testing, rapid iteration, data-driven feedback, real-time service improvements and so on.

This has resulted in the delivery of 20 “usually, brilliant digital public services”.  That “usually” is an interesting caveat, especially in light of the criticism GDS’s old leadership ran into over the botched Rural Payments program.

Since then, there’s been changes around the GDS model. In fact, the current more ‘softly, softly’, less centrist approach seems better to echo Hancock’s pitch for the service.  Despite concerns about its future prior to last year’s General Election, GDS has been backed with £450 million for the current parliamentary term.


Hancock’s second principle is one that’s a truism for both private and public sectors - digital transformation is business transformation.

This agenda is not about replacing paper forms with websites. Rather, it’s about recognising that you can’t redesign a service without redesigning the organisation delivering it.

Before GDS, government technology was really just contract management, argued Hancock, riffing on what has been a familiar theme for six years now:

Digital services were designed, built and delivered by other people, working towards inflexible contracts that locked us into ageing IT.

The path now is to bring tech architecture, project management and delivery in-house. According to Hancock, this means that government can control and understand our own technology. Where procurements are done via the digital marketplace, there is the  knowhow to be an intelligent customer.

This also means that the “common stuff” can be done once, then shared with everyone - at least in theory. As Hancock had to admit, tech has traditionally functioned in departmental silos with limited interoperability. This is why there is the push towards platforms that can be re-used across government, such as GOV.UK/Pay or GOV.UK/Notify.

The problem with bringing tech back in-government is that governments on right and left of the political agenda have spent decades outsourcing the skills needed to make this work. Hancock conceded:

We need more specialists for sure, but we also need the Civil Service as a whole to add digital to their skillset. So our Digital and Technology Fast Stream is developing the tech-savvy leaders of the future, with a cohort of almost 100 graduates currently working right across government.

At the same time, we’re working with our most senior civil servants to ensure they are equipped with the skills, tools and vocabulary to lead this transformation.

There’s also a need for a cultural mind-shift as well, particularly in terms of how government thinks about delivery.

In the past, government would launch a new service and then not think about it much until the minister was hauled up in front of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to explain why it wasn’t delivering as planned. Instead we’re now moving towards a culture of continuous incremental improvement, where service managers adjust the service in real-time, in response to user feedback.

It’s a solid ambition, although we’re a long way yet from ministers getting a pass on the PAC performance.


The final plank of the three principles is the central role of data in delivering public services. To illustrate this point, Hancock bravely chose to point to a recent high-profile cock-up - the collapse of the online registration system for next week’s EU Referendum.

With that particular brand of glass-half-full vision that politicians specialize in, Hancock cited this glitch as a positive:

When the register to vote service crashed last week, within two hours we knew exactly what was wrong and we could fix it – because we had the data.

Each of our digital services has a page on the GOV.UK performance platform, allowing us to see how many people are using the service at any one time.

This meant we knew exactly how many people had been trying to get onto the system when it crashed.

Armed with this information, we were than able to make a case for emergency legislation to give people more time to register.

You’d almost think it had been planned…

But cynicism aside, the emphasis on data allows the long-sought ambition of evidence-based policymaking to be realized:

Interlinking disparate datasets is allowing for radically more targeted interventions. Combining tax and education data allows us to see which courses deliver the best employment outcomes, for example.

Hancock said that the forthcoming Digital Economy Bill will take this forward, to ensure that information can be shared to improve public services, reduce fraud and improve statistics:

With a sensible data-driven approach, it will be possible, for example, to provide automatic discounts off the energy bills of people living in fuel poverty. Or to deliver more timely interventions for troubled families dealing with multiple government agencies.

The traditional accountability function of data has also been enhanced by digital technology, Hancock concluded:

Anyone can see our performance platform, how often a service is used and how it much costs per transaction. In a data-driven world, our effectiveness as a government is a matter of fact rather than opinion.

My take

Three solid principles. We’ve seen some evidence of these in practice, although there’s still an enormously long way to go of course. More exemplars to follow during the rest of the conference today.

Image credit - Digital Leaders

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