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Why has UK Government digital transformation just created a giant bureaucracy?

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton March 9, 2022
Why have Whitehall’s digital transformation plans created a huge white elephant? The end result? Thousands of government jobs, but precious little else.


One of the National Data Strategy’s missions is to improve the UK Government’s use of data and so drive efficiency and upgrade public services. A positive message. But to do that, Whitehall needs to retain public trust. So noted Lord Clement-Jones, Chair of a Westminster eForum this week on digital transformation in government.

The LibDem peer’s words came as the question of trust in government, and an apparent gap between rhetoric and delivery, have become constants of British life.

The context for the event was the launch of Whitehall’s Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO). Not to mention the flood of tech-related strategy documents that have been published since Brexit, all of which put capitalizing on the economic advantages of data front and centre of government policy.

But is it just about making or saving money? This is a critical question, as it relates to how we define the public sector: is it primarily about providing high-quality, well-designed, needs-based public services to taxpayers? Or is it a sector that creates opportunities to make money from serving the public?

Former McKinsey consultant Megan Lee is the new Director of Strategy at the CDDO. She explained:

What I observed during my time as a consultant was the same challenges occurring over and over again. I knew that the private sector was racing ahead and there was much we could learn from them. So, I joined the Civil Service last summer to help set up and run a new organization, to lead on addressing some of the systemic challenges, putting the right conditions in place for digital transformation across government.

That sounds impressive. However, one criticism of government in recent years is that, for an administration that is supposedly anti-red tape, it has been remarkably adept at creating a serpentine bureaucracy of new offices, services, institutes, and more, to manage its ambitions for digital systems, AI, and data. Enough for a McKinsey consultant to jump ship and seize the opportunity, in fact.

The CDDO would appear to be the latest example of this. Doesn’t it duplicate the function of the Government Digital Service (GDS)? Not quite, said Lee.

By 2021, the GDS had a huge number of things on its plate. It was set up 10 years ago to transform the UK government's approach to digital transformation and technology. And, in particular, to focus on delivering citizen-facing digital services through GOV.UK.

To transform the transformation, no less. She continued:

But over time, this department's own individual digital programmes and capabilities developed at pace and the GDS mandate grew to include the provision of leadership for the cross-government digital, data, and technology function, which now encompasses over 21,000 professionals across 46 government organizations. And we increasingly found it was very hard for one organization to have the bandwidth to do both.

So, the creation of CDDO gave us the opportunity to form a new organization with a clear mandate to act as the strategic centre for data across government. It also freed up bandwidth within GDS to focus on building, supporting, and iterating digital products, platforms, and services that can be built once at the center and used across government.

The GDS and CDDO are “two peas in a pod”, she added. Meanwhile, Lee is effectively in charge of government digital strategy.

So, there you have it: proof that, if nothing else, the government has created tens of thousands of public-sector jobs in support of its digital, data, and AI ambitions – and doubtless run up large consultancy fees in the process. Nice work if you can get it.

But despite this, there’s a problem, said Lee:

We've not moved fast enough. We've found that we're increasingly being left behind by the ever-more-rapid adoption of digital channels and ways of working happening across the private sector.

And we're acutely aware of the impact that's having on users’ expectations of our public services. Other countries have started to catch up with the UK’s early lead. We've fallen from first place in the UN's e-government rankings to seventh. So, clearly we have some work to do.

Quite. It’s almost as if creating a vast bureaucracy to serve your digital ambitions isn’t the same as being nimble and agile. And is all this digital activity serving the public in the real world? She said:

There are some great examples of good digital services in government that are accessible, easy to use, and which get great feedback from our users. But there are also many awful ones. We still have thousands of offline forms on GOV.UK, where we expect users to find them, print them, complete them with a pen, and post them back to us.

Out of 370 services on GOV.UK, more than half have a unique account. And if you want to use all of them, you’d need about 40 different sign-in methods to access them. This is much too complicated. We also ask users for the same information over and over again.

One ID to rule them all? 

Indeed, and some of the government’s recent moves have been bizarre, to say the least. For example, self-employed people seeking SEISS income support during the pandemic had to create an entirely new government gateway ID to do so, rather than sign on with the one they already had. This suggests a world of unnecessary complexity and risk behind the scenes, knitting together multiple digital IDs that describe the same person.

It also implies that a single digital identifier is what’s needed to unlock government digital services for users and sweep the complexity away. The problem is, this triggers fears of an authoritarian government using digital identities to track everything that citizens do, Chinese style.

On the one hand, a single sign-on to digital services would simplify government for citizens – at least, for those citizens that are online and/or mobile. But on the other, it’s not hard to see how an authoritarian government might abuse such a system.

Lest we forget, eight percent of British adults are not recent internet users, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), including 46 percent of citizens aged over 75. Over six percent of UK adults (more than 3.4 million people) have never used the internet, so digitizing government excludes many citizens.

Lee has certainly given the matter some thought. She said:

There are two key points around digital identity. One is it is crucial that our digital identity solutions are efficient and accessible and give our users a good experience. But at the moment, I think there's a long way for us to go on that.

The second is that individual departments having their own digital identity solutions is far from efficient. And so, we are certainly very supportive of moving towards convergence, so that solutions can be both effective and good value for the public.

Our colleagues in GDS are currently leading on a programme called One Log-in. That's really about ensuring that digital identity and authentication work in a way that is more efficient than now, with a single approach across government.

We all know that's a challenging thing to do, given the scale and complexity of government departments and their different needs. But we're certainly very supportive.

But is all this frenetic activity and internal job creation better for citizens? The signs aren’t necessarily good. After creating a colossal bureaucracy, the government has also sought to shift the onus back onto citizens and businesses in some cases.

One recent example is forcing self-employed people to purchase accounting software and digitize their own VAT and tax returns, thus increasing their administrative, cost, time, and accounting burdens. This is despite the government having created 21,000 new jobs within its own walls. All those internal jobs, yet an increased digital burden for citizens.

The old system of simply filling in your income and expenditure online once a quarter is now, demonstrably, more complex, more time-consuming, and more expensive for self-employed people. So much so that some are now deregistering from VAT, which deprives the Exchequer of revenue. It’s hard to see what any of this achieves in the real world.

My take

The UK Government’s record of creating internal digital jobs, bureaucracy, and complexity is second to none. But the evidence suggests that, in the process, the UK has lost its lead in e-government, even as it talks up its world-beating status.

The underlying problem is easy to identify. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) is not fit for purpose. It has never made sense to lump these disparate areas of national life together into a single ministry, other than to signal that these are the four areas that no one in the Cabinet understands.

The fact that the UK’s digital ambitions have spurred the creation of so many new organizations, services, institutes, offices, and more, merely underlines this point.

Why not just create a single Department for Digital and have done with it? After all, it exists by proxy across the machineries of state and, so far, employs 21,000 people.

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