Public Services > Central Government

Is the government’s Brexit culture eating the Transformation Strategy for breakfast?

David Bicknell Published 13 February 2018

The government’s strategy to harness digital technologies, skills and tools to transform public services was launched a year ago. But arguably it has been kicked into the long grass by a government consumed by Brexit


Delivering the keynote speech at the Reform think tank’s annual conference in London on February 9 last year, Ben Gummer, the then Minister for the Cabinet Office, outlined the government’s commitment to build on the Digital by Default services developed under the previous digital transformation strategy.

It is a mark of what has happened in government in the last year that the man who made the speech at Reform launching the strategy had disappeared from government a few months later, washed away in a General Election, unnecessarily called by Theresa May, which also washed away her overall majority. And her authority.

The government’s Transformation Strategy was designed to set out how the government will harness digital technologies, skills and tools to transform public services and “redefine the relationship between the citizen and the state.”

Since then, some might argue, the strategy has become similarly waterlogged, surrounded by rising Brexit floodwaters that are forcing unfairly publicly derided civil servants and the few sane remaining (pun intended) ministers to seek refuge in upper floors. Meanwhile the split Cabinet dithers.

Consider this. The Transformation Strategy was launched a year ago, under a different administration i.e. before a General Election. Although the Transformation Strategy has an end date of 2020, it all seems, frankly rather ‘un-transformational’ and, arguably, dull now.


Contrast that with November’s launch of a different government strategy, Industrial , intended to “build a Britain for the future”, full of ‘Grand Challenges’ and including those hot buzzwords ‘Artificial Intelligence’, the ones that Theresa May, told Davos , she wants Britain to be a ‘world leader’ in.

It’s difficult not to get the impression that the year old Transformation Strategy, announced in a previous Parliament by a minister who’s no longer an MP, has been kicked into if not long, then overgrown grass, while the Industrial Strategy – shiny, new and full of tech buzzwords – is given a Global Britain Brexit-wash. The next thing you know, an ambitious, digitally literate Secretary of State will be launching his own app highlighting it.

It doesn’t help, as Owen Spottiswoode, head of Public Services at techUK reminds us, that the “Transformation Strategy’s first year has been a tumultuous one: besides last May’s General Election, there have been three different junior ministers with responsibility for GDS, and the Minister for the Cabinet Office has been replaced twice since Ben Gummer wrote the strategy’s foreword last February.”

Despite the claim from many that GDS has somehow lost its mojo – what happened to all the blogs it used to write that seemed to be a measure of its digital influence, many ask - there are some, like Spottiswoode, willing to offer more credit.

Spottiswoode argues that “in this context [of a tumultuous year], GDS deserves credit for the successes it has had. It has built some solid foundations to help public servants collaborate and share between organisations, including the expansion of cross-Government communities, better data on service use, and the creation of standards that promote interoperability and reuse. The opening of the GDS Academy is also an important step in tackling the significant shortage of digital skills within the Civil Service.”

The Brexit Dilemma

My view is that the real reason why relatively little has been heard about the Transformation Strategy in the past year is Brexit. There are 313 Exit work streams in DExEU’s database, as the NAO told us in its report , “The Department for Exiting the European Union and the centre of government.”

The number of work streams is greatest for some mid-sized departments. For example, DExEU records 43 work streams for the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and 69 work streams for the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. (BEIS)

Many work streams require a coordinated effort spanning a number of departments. For example, preparations for implementing changes at the border require a coordinated approach across several departments including HM Revenue & Customs, HM Treasury, the Home Office, Department for Transport, and Defra.

DExEU, drawing upon assessments provided by departments, estimates that up to 1,000 pieces of secondary legislation must be in place by the time the UK leaves the EU in March 2019.

Just one example is a story reported in the Guardian last week . It suggested that British drivers may need new licences and registration certificates to travel in Europe after Brexit under contingency plans being drawn up by the government that experts warn would create “extremely labour-intensive” extra red tape. It may well not turn out that way, but Whitehall has to understand the implications. 

The Brexit dilemma that has consumed the Civil Service has also left large – and small – suppliers trying to understand which of those 313 DExEU work streams they should best understand and prioritise to provide help on. Even big companies don’t truly know what the government’s priorities are and suppliers of all sizes are still seeking some sort of steer as to whether they have a role to play.


Spottiswoode continues, “The Transformation Strategy was rightly ambitious, and to truly fulfil its vision government will need to oversee a step-change in the pace and scale of transformation over the next two years. In particular, it will need to work across departments and take advantage of industry expertise to grapple with the significant challenge posed by the end-to-end transformation of complex services. If the trend of the past year continues, GOV.UK Verify - which is integral to its vision of joined-up services – will have less than a quarter of the 25 million users the Transformation Strategy hoped for by 2020.

“techUK would also like to see more progress made towards removing the barriers to sharing that inhibit the public sector from realising the potential of its data. It’s disappointing that the pledge to appoint a Chief Data Officer is as yet unfulfilled, and we hope that the change in departmental responsibility for data policy won’t distract from the need for greater clarity in this area.”

You’d expect Government Digital Service (GDS) director general Kevin Cunnington to have a more upbeat view of the Transformation Strategy, and indeed, he does.

In one of those now rarer GDS blogs published to coincide with the Transformation Strategy, Cunnington mounted a robust defence of progress .

He said, “GDS is continuing to deliver the tools, resources and standards that help government work more effectively and deliver user-focused services.

“There are now more than 175 services across government that use one of the common components we operate. For example the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency uses GOV.UK Notify to remind people when they need to have an MOT test for their vehicle. This service now has more than 500,000 users.”

He continued, “The Department for International Trade’s services on, such as 'Exporting is great', 'Find a buyer' and 'Find a supplier', and 'Selling online overseas', were designed, developed and delivered very quickly, thanks to the department’s use of components such as GOV.UK Notify and GOV.UK Platform as a Service.

“And local authorities are also taking advantage of these components. For example Bath and North East Somerset Council uses Notify to let residents know about bin collection days, while both GOV.UK Pay and GOV.UK Verify are also available for local authorities.

“So far more than 22.3 million notifications have been sent through GOV.UK Notify and more than £39.3 million in payments has passed through GOV.UK Pay.”

In a video accompanying Cunnington’s blog, Michelle Thorp, managing director, Digital Technology and Estates at the Department for International Trade explained, “We very much try and mirror the Transformation Strategy. So when we’re looking at the strategy for DIT Digital, we’re also looking at the objectives from the Transformation Strategy.

“We’re very, very keen on the Government as a Platform suite. We’ve been making as much use of that as we can. We have developed Data Hub, which is one of our most important business engagement tools but we were able to do using hosting, Pay and other systems that had already been developed. Everything that we’ve used, we’ve found has been flexible and quick and easy and totally what we’ve been looking for and needed.”

She added, “Working with GDS colleagues to come up with the solutions is one of the best ways of making sure that we have a dynamic and informed conversation that as long as we can articulate a business problem, they’ve been able to help us solve.”

User-centred and design led

Cunnington pointed to how GDS is delivering things that help civil servants do their jobs better, including GovWifi, which offers a single WiFi login for all of government.

He also noted that GDS is also helping improve government procurement through the Digital Marketplace and referenced the £3.2bn being spent through the Marketplace in just under six years, with 48% of it spent with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

It was a point similarly made by GDS’ Digital Marketplace director Warren Smith in a discussion last week (full interview to follow shortly) in which Smith said, “By 2020, we will have embedded user-centred and design led and data driven and open approaches in public procurement and contracting so that it becomes effectively the mainstream. It’s commonplace, it’s not the exception. It’s just embedded in the way people do their work.” 

The development of GOV.UK Verify, of course, is never far away from the public sector spotlight, and Cunnington said the government was “tackling the challenge of identity assurance through it. He pointed to HMRC using it to help people check their income tax online and to the Land Registry using it to support the launch of a new digital mortgages service.”

Cunnington also highlighted GDS being “innovators for government”, working with departments to support existing and upcoming programmes, including using biometrics and artificial intelligence on services.

“We’re working to make sure the things we build and run – including GOV.UK – can use innovative technologies like machine learning and voice control,” he said. “We are also responsible for the GovTech Catalyst programme , a £20m fund to help tech firms deliver innovative fixes to public sector challenges.

Cunnington also pointed to GDS’s work in supporting Brexit. The organisation is currently recruiting a ‘deputy director for EU Exit’ to lead and manage a dedicated GDS team on matters related to Brexit, who will have responsibility for establishing the team and building its profile. Interviews for the £118K role are scheduled for this coming week.

Cunnington’s blog has been reinforced by one from Oliver Dowden in the Cabinet Office, which repeated much of Cunnington’s content but tackled the strategy from a Civil Service perspective. 

Discussing the messages from Cunnington’s blog, GlobalData Principal Analyst, Public Sector Rob Anderson said, “Cunnington discusses the progress made over the last 12 months and unsurprisingly focuses on the GaaP components that have gained traction, like Notify.Gov and GovWifi. Both have enabled improved services, externally and within the public sector respectively. However, the two key building blocks to a radical transformation of public services – identity assurance with Gov.Verify, and the better use of data – remain troublesome and are all but glossed over.

“The Transformation Strategy documented a bold pledge to reach 25 million users by 2020, but increased uptake is slow. As of 31st December, the number of Verify accounts stood at 1.82m and if the current rate of growth is maintained that would deliver just 11 million users by the end of the decade.

“There is still much debate amongst seasoned professionals of the best way to achieve a common form of identity authentication. The feeling persists that an opportunity has been missed to collaborate with the private sector, particularly financial services organisations.”

A need to deliver value

As well as Spottiswoode’s supportive comments on the Transformation Strategy, and Thorp’s description of how DIT has worked closely with GDS, there have also been positive and considered words for what the government has achieved transformation-wise from Mark Lyons, senior managing director in Accenture’s UK and Ireland Health and Public Service Practice.

Lyons said, “The government took digital to the next level and we are now seeing the right skills being put in place in organisations. The DWP/GDS Digital Academy is teaching civil servants the digital skills they need to transform public services, while the Infrastructure and Project Authority is training some of its people to project manage in departments. At the same time, the procurement work done on the G-Cloud and Digital Outcomes and Specialists frameworks has allowed organisations to do the work instead of taking ages and ages bidding for the work.”

Lyons also pointed to the change in the transformative approach in the use of development methods. “Agile and DevOps have become the standard and there is little being carried out in the old waterfall methodology.”

“In terms of [what we have seen] so far, a lot of it is still work in progress. GOV.UK and DVLA are talked about a lot in terms of government. But we are not yet able to point to a government department and say ‘job done. Here is the finished product and here are the benefits that have been realised.’

“We need examples of moving to the cloud, trying to prove artificial intelligence, and using analytics to be a data driven business.”

“With examples such as Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals System (HMCTS) or Digital Tax, you can look at each of them and say ‘change is happening’. But today you cannot clearly say ‘this is the value that has been delivered.’ Government has to be able to demonstrate what the benefits are.”

“Innovation is not just the domain of SMEs”

Discussing the expected move of data policy and governance from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Lyons pointed to the data sharing work that has been delivered through the sharing of real time information (RTI) between the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

“I am less concerned that DCMS v Cabinet Office is an issue. It is more about being able to clearly understand and show what the business benefit is going to be from sharing this data as HMRC and DWP have been able to do through RTI,” he said. “That work has been done in a collaborative manner.”

Lyons is also keen to make the point that larger companies too can also deliver innovation, in areas such as blockchain and ‘applied intelligence i.e. combining artificial intelligence with analytics expertise to help organisations embrace intelligent technologies confidently and responsibly. “Innovation isn’t just the domain of SMEs,” he insists.

Given the challenge of Brexit, it’s hardly surprising that not too many people in Whitehall, it seems, are overly worrying about the ‘Transformation Strategy’ in 2018. Other than last week’s anniversary, and a couple of blogs written to mark the anniversary, it has, relatively speaking, hardly been mentioned in the last six months, though clearly several departments and public sector organisations, notably DIT, are benefiting from GDS’s work. And maybe that’s the point.

The strategy runs from 2017 to 2020, which still leaves plenty of time for tangible progress. It may well be that much of what is currently contained in the ‘Transformation Strategy’ just becomes ‘business as usual’ anyway and the grand ‘strategy’ title simply gets lost.

Will we be asking questions about progress in the final year of the ‘Transformation Strategy’ halfway through 2019? I doubt it. Until someone stops it, or something dramatic happens Brexit-wise, the ‘Transformation Strategy’ ball is rolling steadily towards the long grass. Some might prefer it that way.


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