UK Digital Strategy: turning a conversation into delivery
Following the publication of the UK Government’s Digital Strategy, Jonathan Bradshaw, CTO at digital technology specialist Agilisys, shares his thoughts on how to accelerate digital government at a local level
The Government’s new Digital Strategy is a welcome recognition of the importance of digital to the UK economy. It has close links to other recent announcements, including the government's own Transformation Strategy and National Industrial Strategy, where digital is quite rightly viewed as key to helping increase productivity and growth across the UK.
For those who have not read it, the seven broad strands outlined within the Digital Strategy cover important foundations from network infrastructure, data, security, skills and digital inclusion, connecting existing ideas, initiatives and funding.
Much has been achieved but as we approach the next digital frontier, how do we ensure we get the most from the latest wave of digital disruption? This is particularly important at a local government level where targeted funding to accelerate delivery could go a long way to supporting the growth of our digital economy.
The Government Digital Service (GDS) has made good progress delivering digital service and cultural change across central government. The 25 exemplar projects delivered under its direction were powerful examples showing that rapid digital change in complex government organisations is possible.
GDS has been supported by substantial investment including the £450m allocated in the 2015 Autumn Statement. By comparison, central funding for local government digital transformation has been largely limited to pilot projects attempting to trickle down GDS central government initiatives (such as GOV.UK Verify). As yet, the closest thing to a 'GDS for local government' is the Local Government Coalition established with limited funding by a number of local authority bodies and individual local authorities.
Just as with GDS itself and also with NHS Digital, a funded central body across all local authorities in the UK, focussed on creating the right environment and market conditions for accelerated digital transformation, could make a real difference.
One example where a central body could drive real change in local government is through promotion of access to open APIs (Application Programme Interfaces). This is the stuff of automation on the internet allowing one component to programmatically interact with another. Industry commentators from Gartner to Forbes as well as UK government ministers have spoken about the importance of creating the 'API Economy'.
At present, vendors selling back office systems to local authorities are under no obligation to provide open access to APIs to those systems. This can inhibit local authorities building new digital solutions that integrate with back office systems. A 'GDS for local government' could define a new generation of local authority digital standards and place adherence to them as a pre-requisite for vendors selling to local government. Such an organisation could also help ensure that the digital lessons from devolution initiatives such as in Manchester are captured in standards and assets that can be used across the whole of the UK.
It's interesting to see what's happing inside local government in Scotland. The national Improvement Service has been established with £6m of central funding with a defined strategy to drive change across local government in Scotland. It already provides a range of products and services to all 32 Scottish Authorities. Whilst local government in Scotland may not be of the scale of the rest of the UK, the Improvement Service is a relevant example of what can achieved with a modest amount of central funding.
Within the Digital Strategy, government sees its role as creating the environment for change rather than directly delivering it. In local government, there is much that can be done centrally to foster the environment for digital innovation and change. The Digital Strategy has been positioned as the first statement in a conversation between government and business. It’s a conversation that is much needed if the full potential of digital technology is to be realised across the UK.