How do we embed digital transformation in government?

Digital transformation is the great disruptor of our age. From Blockbusters to Netflix, a local minicab firm to Uber. But has change happened fast enough, or been extensive enough to change government? Tony Blair writes today that much of the political discussion around technology would not have looked out of place when he was in power, 10 years ago.

Citizens’ transactions with government have changed significantly, thanks to the Government Digital Service. It began life as a disruptive force; created to provide a single web presence, and digitise the highest volume transactions in government. It achieved more with technology than any previous efforts, adopting the user-centred, Agile methods found in most technology companies and now emulated across the globe.

Although its achievements were considerable, its founders later cautioned against the risk of delivering little more than “lipstick on a pig”. Transactions may largely be digital by default (or on the path) and signposted from GOV.UK but the government departments that administer them remain fragmented, organised around the needs of government rather than those of the user.

Meanwhile, no one can doubt the impact of digital on changing politics. Social media already felt well established as a political tool due to Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 but now operates at an even greater scale. Social media campaigns may have supported revolution in the middle east, the spread of fake news, or even more local matters such as the presence of Jane Austen on a £10 note.

But government is primarily a policymaking and lawmaking machine, and here digital has had too little impact. The process of devising, consulting and implementing policies remains firmly rooted in an architecture of government that was created in response to the post war settlement. What better example than Brexit — a set of policies and legislation that will be devised to deliver a pre-determined outcome against a fixed timescale?

Meanwhile, the emphasis in government has shifted to embedding digital within government departments. The Service Standard may reach beyond digital services; spend controls are loosened and GDS’ focus is on providing training and common technology. Much of this may be positive — witness the energy of the emerging One Team Gov movement.

But digital transformation in government remains a job half-started.

Until we understand what digital policymaking looks like, government will remain better suited to deliver the post-war settlement than a post-Brexit reality. Chris Yiu argues for an independent ‘Office for Policy Simulation’ as well as changes to the structure of government to give a focus to digital change at the heart of government. These can act as important levers for learning how to equip public services for the future.

But just as the initial ‘separateness’ of GDS proved problematic, ensuring the continued change of government requires a systematic and sustained approach. Protected from market forces, change will need widespread support if it’s to happen. We need to:

  1. Start with user needs. Democracy, government and public services need better outcomes, not just more elegant means. Digital needs political leadership. Until we can explain how a digital government can build a better society it is unlikely to matter enough to leaders.
  2. Refocus the strategy. Digital is at risk of being siloed as ‘better transactions’. We need to show how we can join-up transactions, policy and politics to create a fundamentally different value for citizens.
  3. Build the capacity to agitate for more. Digital needs its charities, campaigns and thinktanks urging better, faster, cheaper services. We need our institutions to be building digitally-enabled social change, not just using digital to campaign for new rules and waterfall interventions.
  4. Reach out. Too many conversations around digital happen between technologists. I fear too few are represented where the real decisions get made. We may need to talk less to each other, in order to influence thinking about trade agreements. health and social care and public service design.
  5. A new wave of expertise. GDS 1.0 brought people into public service who were experts in their field, now globally-recognised. Whilst government has always struggled with new agencies, many have delivered a legacy that outlasts their shelf life. Let’s talk not of digital as an additional skillset but show how this can offer new approaches to hard challenges.
  6. Major policy making prototypes. GDS tackled transactions whilst most of government continued unaffected. Central government departments continue to pass secondary legislation and guidance to its delivery partners — a goldmine for technology vendors selling ‘compliant’ software — rather than policy as code. We don’t know what policymaking in the digital age will look like, so we need some prototypes to find out.
  7. Show the thing. If we believe social care can be built differently for a digital age, for example, there’s not a better time to start (later will be worse).

We could just settle for better forms — and lord knows how hard that is. But look at the whole board. Global businesses will continue to push the boundaries delivering uneven public good. Democracy is eroding, the public sector is shrinking and much of politics seems irrelevant to those that need it most. Given the choice, I’d prefer to aim high.