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IfG issues stern warning on Whitehall’s digital government efforts

David Bicknell Published 31 October 2016

Think-tank says “sustained attention” needed to take digital government to the next level is “not currently in evidence”, with ministers distracted by Brexit


The Institute for Government (IfG) has warned that efforts to accelerate the pace and depth of digital transformation in government need to be stepped up if these efforts are to be taken “to the next level”.

It added that the “sustained attention” needed to achieve this is “not currently in evidence.” Ministers “are distracted by preparing for Brexit” and the leadership of government departments “often do not understand what needed to be done to implement digital changes.”

In a report called “Making a success of digital government”, the IfG pointed out that while four out of five adults in Great Britain use the Internet every day, only two-thirds have ever conducted any transactions online with government.

But making a success of digital government necessarily means getting more people to do their business with government online.  This is anticipated to require more and better online services – for example, providing a single, joined-up online service to register a new baby, rather than asking parents to navigate the boundaries of local and central government and the National Health Service (NHS).

It also means there is an urgent need to improve services that run behind the scenes so that manual processing becomes a thing of the past. For example, child benefit claims that take up to 12 weeks to process.

The report says that in 2011, government promised “a leap into the digital future”, with ‘world class digital products that meet people’s needs and offer better value for taxpayers’ money’. Since then progress has been made, though by inches forward, rather than leaps.

The IfG’s report makes five recommendations, covering moving from small changes to undertaking transformation to bring policy and implementation together, building the right skills environment and redefining the role of the Government Digital Service (GDS).

The report also noted that when GDS was created and started to make its presence felt in government, Whitehall websites were brought together into GOV.UK and large IT outsourcing contracts became subject to strict controls.

There was conflict and resistance to change with some failures and successes.  The challenge now, the IfG says, is to move from relatively small changes to start to make the big changes that will really improve services and save money. These changes, the IfG says, will extend far beyond the remit of chief information or digital officers and making it happen will require a big increase in the capability of the leadership of departments and agencies.

The IfG recommends that understanding digital transformation needs to be part of the preparation of civil servants for leadership roles. It regards the expansion of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Digital Academy as a welcome first step towards equipping government leaders. The report also wants to see the head of the Civil Service ensure that leaders of departments take time to learn from experienced public and private sector peers about how to lead digital transformation.

It also believes the Major Projects Leadership Academy should prepare officials for managing transformation programmes, most of which will include a significant digital component.

Another key area is bringing policy and implementation together. The IfG points out that Whitehall has a long tradition of making policy without sufficient attention being given to the practicalities of implementation, and digital projects have been no exception.

New digital approaches can help to address the policy–implementation gap, by bringing user research and constant adaptation to the fore. But, it argues, digital and policy specialists need to work together, not in relay. To that end, the IfG recommends that Whitehall heads of profession for policy, and for digital, data and technology, should publish guidance on making policy that uses digital technology and methods.

On the critical role of GDS, the IfG finds that the organisation has played an important role in bringing new digital capability into government. But, in the absence of a new digital strategy, its role is unclear.

The report argues that GDS needs to re-equip itself to support a government that now has rapidly developing digital capability, and high ambitions for change. (GDS’ own strategy was recently signalled by GDS director general Kevin Cunnington as being set for publication before Christmas).

The IfG recommends that the government digital strategy should define the roles of departments, agencies and GDS in addressing the challenges outlined in its report. It also believes GDS should continue to “set, support and enforce central standards for user experience and to ensure interoperability.” It also believes that in the face of an increasing risk of cyber-attacks, setting, supporting and enforcing security standards is a high priority for the centre of government.

It argues that:

  • The head of function for digital, data and technology should continue to oversee the appointment of digital leaders, sitting on appointment panels for key appointments
  • GDS should use its expertise and strategic overview of government to identify priority work and capability gaps, and deploy teams into departments to support their work where necessary
  • GDS should place less emphasis on developing applications for cross-government use, only doing so where the market does not provide good options
  • Departments and agencies, supported by GDS, need to work together more closely to develop joined-up services and identify large savings.

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