Public Services > Central Government

The government needs to get its ‘digital mojo’ back: here’s how

Published 23 November 2016

With little ‘digital’ of note in the Autumn Statement, Eduserv’s Jos Creese warns the government’s digital ambitions are on the slow track


UK governments like to talk up the role of technology in delivering public services and streamlining the machinery of government. They particularly like to focus on its importance to social cohesion and to the economy.

Often, when it comes to investing money to make all of that happen, there is little evidence of resources to back up the words.

For this reason, the April budget was somewhat of a surprise with the previous Chancellor announcing significant new funds for technology investment. Money for a world-class HMRC digital tax service, national cybersecurity, integrated and digitally enabled health care, and the government digital service (GDS) were all put on the table.

By contrast, in today’s Autumn Statement, digital was conspicuous in its absence, giving a sense that the government’s digital ambitions are on the slow track.

As things stand today, the once ambitious GDS is at a near standstill, living off a commendable vision of digital government which is nearly a decade old and suffering from unprecedented leadership turnover.

Whitehall’s internal digital systems for common corporate functions such as finance, procurement, HR, Legal and more are still fragmented.

In two flagship digital projects, one is still in development after many years - GOV.UK Verify, the acclaimed citizen identification programme - and another - Care.Data - has failed.

Unquestionably Brexit has created a Whitehall ‘blackhole’ sucking in energy and ambition from every civil service programme. But it is more than that.

A recent report by the Institute for Government in October stated that Whitehall issues with leadership, legacy systems and the retention of core skills is holding back digital opportunities.

So, if we truly have, as we are told, a world class GDS, what has gone wrong over the last 5 years and what do we need the Chancellor address in his next budget statement?

Firstly, it is not all about Whitehall, though reading the news you might believe this to be the case. There are outstanding examples of innovation, shared services, digital transformation and integration of services mostly outside Whitehall. With devolution and the track record of local government still about five years ahead of the Civil Service and significantly more efficient, resources and authority to act needs to be moved from the centre. This is not about reinstating grants from central to local government. It is about moving budgets, permanently, with freedom to act, to new pan-local public service organisations.

Secondly, a complete re-think of GDS is needed. The GDS confrontational style over the last period with traditional CIO teams across Whitehall was well-intentioned to create change. It did not however prove helpful in building capacity and commitment and alienated technology teams.

GDS has a strong track record for vision, but should not be tasked with delivery and needs to franchise others to do this. It needs to focus on what it does best and, for example, define a digital future for health and social care integration – Care as a Platform – which can then be implemented locally and collaboratively, using a strong, co-designed national blueprint. Joined up government policy on key digital topics would also be enormously helpful.

Thirdly, the public sector needs to develop the skills it will depend upon, top to bottom, to embrace digital opportunity. This is about investment in training, apprenticeships, mentoring and career structures, but it is also about rewarding talent and leadership.

The constant reference to the Prime Minister’s salary as some sort of benchmarked maximum pay scale is unhelpful and naïve, resulting in enormous sums paid to digital contractors and consultants, coupled with problems in recruitment and retention of core digital skills. We need a generation of digital leaders who are committed to (and understand) public service yet can bring diverse experience and commercial knowhow.

If digital is to have a stronger impact across the public sector it urgently needs a fresh start nationally.

Investment matters, but mostly because access to money can help to change cultures and practices than there is a need to invest in better technology. Therefore, I would like to see the Chancellor talking about the building blocks of a digital economy and digital public services – building a new vision, the skills and the priority for change.

This includes recognising the strength and importance of local public service delivery, listening to the local leaders who have been advocating a new approach and showing how it can be delivered.

Furthermore, GDS needs the backing and resources to work with existing professional IT societies, the Education sector, charities and the Department of Education, to build UK digital literacy at all levels and in all parts of society and industry.

But it also means prioritising integrated policies such as digital infrastructure (broadband, ubiquitous mobile coverage, PSN, free Wi-Fi, IoT), digital care (not just Health), sustainable resources, local economies outside London and more. Creating a ‘smart Britain’ not just a few smart cities.

Jos Creese is principal analyst for Eduserv’s Local Government Executive Briefing Programme



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