Public Services

Digital transformation: measuring the progress

David Bicknell Published 28 October 2016

The early thoughts of GDS chief Kevin Cunnington last week provided a clue on how the much-watched organisation sees its role. At the same time, government think tanks and watchdogs are starting to draw their own digital government conclusions


Last week, we got our first insight into some of the thinking of new Government Digital Service (GDS) director general Kevin Cunnington. He indicated GDS had plans to be a national organisation, would prioritise sorting out the Verify ID assurance programme and maintained it would will be in the business of spend controls, but be more, er, approachable in its dealing with departments.

What we don't yet know is the detail of GDS's strategy, and we may not get that until shortly before Christmas. But we do know there is now "no need" for departments or GDS to take adversarial positions.

"Most of us have the same view of where we need to get to and the same kind of plan to get there," Cunnington said in a Government Computing interview.

"Part of it is we need to spend a bit more time talking to each other and GDS having a national footprint will really help because we'll be in the conversations from the get go." (GDS has said it intends to put itself on a bigger national stage by setting up academies around the country, including creating relationships with the Scottish and Welsh governments)

In a conversation with journalists organised by the Cabinet Office, Cunnington cited - and has also recently blogged about - 150 people from the top of the civil service and the digital professions getting together at the Transforming Together event.

He said, "It was adversarial in the past because GDS legitimately had to police some of the things that were going on. Nowadays we are more comfortable departments have created their own capability so having these proper grown up discussions around roadmaps in the future. We're getting much more comfortable with where people are at. So the relationship is changing."

You sense, however, that there is certainly quite a debate beginning to take place about what digital transformation in government currently looks like - and should look like.

On Monday, the Institute for Government will publish a report about making a success of digital government, while next spring, the National Audit Office (NAO) will itself release a much-anticipated stud y examining the effectiveness of GDS in supporting better use of technology and business transformation in government. This includes whether the role and responsibility of GDS is clearly stated and understood, and how it is changing; the progress made by GDS in transforming government services since 2011 and whether GDS is well-placed to support future digital transformation programmes.

There is a sense that, given the chaotic government world that now exists in the wake of the Brexit vote in the summer, and the impact of that on future still-to-be-determined post-EU departmental policies, the civil service focus as far as technology is concerned must be policy-driven.

There may be perhaps less of a digital transformation 'drive' because actually, the policy implications are now more important in the first instance. At the same time, as Theresa May has signalled, 'austerity' is going to be less important as a government driver. Significantly, while GDS's heart will be moving to Aldgate, its head will still be in Whitehall with Cunnington admitting that senior GDS staff still expect to be spending around three days a week in the Cabinet Office.

Talking of digital transformation reports, a notable one that came out this summer from Paul Waller and Vishanth Weerakkody at Brunel University , "Digital Government: overcoming the systemic failure of transformation", argued that to actually achieve a transformation of government through the use of digital technologies, governments "will require a complete reversal of the current way of looking at the challenge."

It suggested that instead of viewing the problem from the point of view of the internet, "they must start with the political process of policy design. In particular, they must look at how technology can change the range and characteristics of policy instruments -- the tools that governments choose from to intervene in the economy, society and environment to make change, such as taxes, benefits, licences, information campaigns and more tangible things like public services and infrastructure. These are the practical results of government, and only when technology changes those can we say it has transformed government."

The report makes the point that the purpose of a government is to "make, implement and administer policy decisions" on behalf of the community for which it has responsibility, for example a nation or a city, on matters that affect the lives of that community as a whole. Such matters may, among many things, be rules of conduct, the spending of community funds on infrastructure or looking after people, or the rules for taxing people to raise those funds.

In relation to digital government, the Brunel team says, the dominant assumption has been that "government is a service industry", with a private sector model in mind. "This is dangerously misleading", the report says. In the case of the application of technology to the public sector, it has led to attempts to overlay the processes of newspapers, banks, and retailers on to public functions -- the result is a model based on broadcasting information and simple transactions. "Yes, some of that does apply to the public sector, but it isn't what it is really about," the report says, adding, "citizens are not customers."

A re-ordering of the digital transformation ballast has recently been signalled in Australia where the Digital Transformation Office has been transformed into the Digital Transformation Agency. The government has described the changes as "phase two" of its digital transformation agenda. Some government watchers regard it as anything but, with "phase two" a subtle descriptor for actually turning the clock back.

We will have to wait and see how or whether this chimes with the GDS view of the world when its complete strategy emerges in a couple of months' time. There are some who believe its first priority should be simply to curate GOV.UK, with anything it achieves on top of that a bonus. There is no doubt, however, that internationally, what GDS has been seen to be doing in terms of digital transformation remains attractive to other governments.

Julia Glidden, IBM's general manager for Global Government Industry, recently mentioned to me after a discussion on cognitive government that internationally, GDS remains in high regard, with its executives at the top of the wish-list as would-be speakers for foreign digital government transformation events.

Indeed, Cunnington's early pronouncements so far have gained the approval of Dr Mark Thompson, Methods' strategy director and a senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Thompson, a seasoned digital government watcher, said, "As he (Cunnington) says himself, it's early days. However, from what I've seen of the approach taken so far, I think the evidence bears out that collaboration is on the cards, and that this is probably in response to a steer from John Manzoni.

"More broadly, GDS seems to be taking a welcome focus on some of the longer-transformation - the 'heavy lifting' work that needs to be done on legacy and data - as well as maintaining most of the shiny front-end work with which GDS became associated in its 'startup' phase. It's also interesting to see some hints about more involvement with local services - in my view, the biggest 'bang for buck' in government digital.

"Longer-term, I'm sure they will need to 'build less' and this may still require some uncomfortable changes to staffing profile in the medium term. My overall impression however is that the new leadership has started well, and that it is paying closer attention to the long-term objective of achieving reusable, interoperable capability across as much of government as possible. If some of the 'religion' needs to be pared away from the organisation during its transition from start-up to mature service provider in government, then that's probably no bad thing - especially for its relationship with the departments."

On the forthcoming NAO study, he said, "It's good to see the NAO launching another audit of GDS and its value for money in government. As ever in such activities, the 'answer' that the NAO returns will depend entirely on 'the question(s)' asked - and experience shows 'digital' to mean many things to many different people.

"For example, whether specific GDS projects have returned ROI, or used best practice in their use of agile, will return very different answers to whether government as a whole has moved further towards interoperability and re-use of common business logic - which operates cross-silo, and to a longer investment timeframe. So it will be interesting to see, and pay close attention to, the questions NAO asks, almost as much as the answers it returns."

In summary, the debate is shifting from what the technology solution is and how to do it to considering exactly what the problem is in the first place - i.e. what does transformation mean? The publication of the forthcoming reports, starting with the Institute for Government on Monday, will offer a clue to the riddle.


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