Why Brexit Could Drive Digital Transformation Forwards for Government
Public sector IT projects, requiring complex procurement processes and management by committee, are notorious for running over budget and behind schedule. In recent years, however, that view has been changing in the UK – but there are already signs that the country may be slipping backwards.
To combat this, Bill Mew, Cloud Strategist for UKCloud, argues that the country needs to seize the opportunity presented by Brexit and create a network of Brexit Exemplars for Service Transformation (BEST).
Exemplars for Transformation
As a starting point, Mew identifies the 2013 Government Digital Strategy as being key to public sector digital success in the years since. GDS committed the government to redesigning and rebuilding 25 exemplar services, making them simpler, clearer and easier. This programme had the subsequent result of unlocking a tidal wave of digital transformation, arguably making the UK an international role model for digital government (just look at gov.uk’s Open Data initiative for a case in point). Indeed, to make the point, the UK came in first place in the UN’s global e-government rankings in 2016.
Digital transformation isn’t an end state, however, but an ongoing process of change. Some have made the case that the civil service has been pushing back against change – putting up walls in order to maintain budgets and influence. “The good work being done to help the government modernise – and to make it work for people who live their lives digitally – is being dismantled,” said cross-bench peer Martha Lane-Fox (whose recommendations formed the basis for the GDS), speaking to the House of Lords in 2017. “Departmental silos are creeping back, replicating cost and inefficiency and, most importantly, letting down citizens.”
All in all, there is the view that if the gains achieved by the government are not built on then they will be lost. And supporting this is the fact that the UK fell to fourth place in the UN’s digital government survey this year – “due to relative decrease in the ranking of its human capital and online service indices”. Commenters, meanwhile, have described GDS as being sidelined in recent years – while the 2017 Government Transformation Strategy lacked the necessary political support to make a difference.
Some significant changes at the top also cloud the picture for what comes next. Matt Hancock (who oversaw the movement of Digital from GDS to DCMS, leaving the rump of GDS under Kevin Cunnington) has moved from DCMS to Health. In May, former-GDS director Paul Shetler, another senior executive to have left, told Diginomica that the “DCMS data move was people fighting over crumbling empires”. Since then, the government’s National Technology Adviser, Liam Maxwell, has announced that he is leaving his role in Whitehall to take up a position at Amazon Web Services (AWS). Shetler and Maxwell follow Mike Bracken, Iain Patterson and many other big names that have left GDS. And, recently, we have heard that Nic Harrison, director of service design and assurance at GDS is also set to leave soon, as is GOV.UK Deputy Director Neil Williams. On top of this, Mark O’Neill, chief digital officer at the Department for Education – and a co-founder of GDS – is also to leave the civil service at the end of the month. Mew asks: “Where does that leave us in terms of leadership here? Ongoing frustration at a senior level has led to a string of resignations as many of the most experienced technologists, and those with digital expertise, have left senior positions in the public sector. At the same time the decentralisation and weakening of the GDS agenda has also given permission for departments to return back to a siloed mentality. Inevitably, digital government is in a state of flux, but leadership and deep digital expertise will be desperately needed during the Brexit transition.”
Brexit with Benefits
The solution to this uncertainty, and the threat of digital malaise, argues Bill, is to create a new programme of exemplars. And, what’s more, this can come amidst the whirlwind of change that is Brexit.
“We need to grasp this opportunity to define a new wave of exemplar projects that go one step further than the original set of 25 did – to change the way that the government works and to introduce a citizen-centric service delivery model,” he writes in Diginomica. “In the same way that the 2013 Government Digital Strategy set out 25 significant ‘exemplar’ projects to make services simpler, clearer and faster to use, a citizen-centric strategy needs to be set out to coincide with several Brexit Exemplars for Service Transformation (BEST) to re-engineer government.”
Indeed, with the necessity of rewriting policy and rebuilding frameworks, the government can plan ahead and build something better, he argues.
“I see Brexit as a massive opportunity to align policy, legislation and operations – rather than [to] continue to act policy by policy and department by department,” he writes. “It is a real opportunity for systems and process rationalisation, starting with a single citizen-centric, service-designed architecture.” And much like the changes recommended by the Behavioural Insights Team, the key is to put individual citizens – including their needs, wants and psychology – at the heart of the picture.
Needless to say, though, success is by no means a sure thing. “Opportunities like this, for real transformation, are few and far between [and] it will take leadership and vision to grasp this opportunity,” Bill notes. The country also faces the potentially challenging prospect of a No-Deal scenario. “Even with the best skills and leadership and certainty as to whether there will be a deal or not, it would be a challenge to have all the necessary systems in place,” says Bill. “How the government expects the technology infrastructure and the teams at DCMS and GDS (and in the various departments) to support a No-Deal scenario is far from clear.”
There are also reports of a significant digital talent shortfall in Whitehall – with resources tight and as many as 4,000 additional IT personnel needed for the government to achieve its various digital transformation plans.
Navigating digital transformation is a challenge at a fundamental level – and it is about far more than how specific technologies can be applied or how specific processes are developed. The impact of Brexit, however, will be felt across the UK economy – and where reconstruction is required, the government has the chance to opt for flexible, responsive and sustainable designs that truly meet the demands of the future.
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