Grand designs: how far has the government got on its transformation strategy?

Written by Sam Trendall on 20 February 2019 in Feature
Feature

Published in February 2017, the Government Transformation Strategy outlined a bold vision for comprehensive and enduring reform, and set a range of ambitious targets. As we enter the final stretch of its three-year itinerary, Sam Trendall examines the progress made to date, and how far is left to travel

The technology sector is renowned for its proliferation of nebulous buzzwords. There is often a very close inverse correlation between the frequency with which terms are used, and the precision with which they are defined. To wit, “innovation”, “solution”, and “disruption”.

‘Transformation’ is another word wielded widely and woollily. But, thankfully, erstwhile Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer has provided a handy definition.

He says: “To change – and to do so at pace and at scale. This is the meaning of transformation.”

These words were included in Gummer’s foreword to the Government Transformation Strategy, published in February 2017. The strategy, which was created by the Government Digital Service, constitutes a three-year game plan for a root-and-branch reform of government across five areas: digital services; skills and culture; tools and processes; use of data; and shared components and platforms.

The last two years have brought progress across the board and, in each of these five areas, examples of tangible advances can be cited.

Equally, it is easy point to ideas that are yet to take off and initiatives that have fallen short of expectations.

All the while, the rollout of the strategy has been buffeted by significant challenges, not least the fact that it was conceived under the ministerial watch of Matt Hancock, then launched by Gummer, before being led by Damian Green, then Caroline Nokes, and, latterly, Oliver Dowden.

Alongside this, Whitehall watchers have increasingly raised questions about the role and efficacy of GDS, particularly in light of the central digital agency losing certain policy responsibilities to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. An ongoing select committee inquiry into the successes and challenges of digital government over the last seven years has also prompted the airing of some robust views on the current state of GDS.

And, all the while, the transformation agenda, like everything else across government, has had to compete for attention with the task of managing the UK’s exit from the European Union

But we are now two-thirds of the way through the intended timeline of the strategy, with just 12 months left in which to make good on the targets set out over the course of the document’s 93 pages

Kevin Cunnington, director general of GDS, tells CSW that “over the last two years, we have made tremendous progress, and I would say we are most certainly on track”.

He points to gains across all of three overarching components: transforming citizen services; full departmental transformation; and internal government transformation.

“I’m proud of the work we’ve done to deliver against the strategy and I’m aware our work is not yet done, nor will it be done at 2020,” he says. “The work we are doing provides a foundation for the digital government of the future.”

CSW will take a look at each of the five objectives in the transformation strategy, assessing achievements so far, and challenges still ahead.


Digital services

Targets for 2020

  • Bring policy and service design closer together
  • Embed digital in the internal workings of departments – not just in front-end services
  • Broaden definition of users, and include use of application programming interfaces (APIs)
  • Develop multi-channel approaches to services – including online, phone, and face to face
  • Help the wider public sector to transform, including local government
  • Ensure government can provide content and services across organisational boundaries
  • Implement flexible ways of working

This section of the strategy is primarily concerned with getting government to operate as – or as least look and feel like – a single, cohesive entity.

There are now almost 800 central government services that provide citizens with a digital means of access. But most of these are one-off transactions, provided by individual departments.

A major goal for the coming months and years is to develop and deliver end-to-end services. These services, which are presented as step-by-step journeys, are designed to take as their starting point a user’s ultimate goal – such as setting up a business – and then build an online pathway to get there. In many cases, this route will take in content and services that fall under the remit of multiple departments.

An early exemplar of the end-to-end approach is the “Learn to drive a car” service – a six-step plan, launched in early 2018, that brings together contributions from the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency

Other step-by-step services have followed, including “What to do when someone dies”, and “Stay in the UK after it leaves the EU”.

But there are still only a handful of these compared to the 400 government services GDS believes could be redesigned as end-to-end user journeys. Cunnington says: “By 2020, we will have delivered at least 86 digital services including a new digital mortgage service and an online divorce service.”

Helping not just government, but the wider public sector to transform was another target laid out in the strategy. Georgina Maratheftis, head of local public services at industry body techUK, says that, having previously lacked certainty, the role GDS can play in local government has become clearer in recent months.

“I would say there is finally some clarity in terms of GDS’s role in local government,” she says. “In the past, there have been mixed messages in terms of how they will support [local government], or if there is a role for them. But I would definitely say that, since GDS became co-publishers of the Local Digital Declaration with MHCLG, […] they are using that framework to show what they’re doing.”

Maratheftis adds that the biggest thing GDS can do to support councils is to exemplify best practice and “share what good looks like” – rather than mandating ways of working or providing hands-on delivery support.

“I don’t think local government is waiting for GDS to come in to show them the way, or what to do – but that best practice in things like data registers and reuse of patterns [can be shared], as well as there being a capability arm in the GDS Academy.”

 


Skills and culture

Targets for 2020

  • Join up policy and delivery
  • Establish a cross-government framework of digital, data and technology (DDaT) jobs and a pay strategy
  • Grow data science through the establishment of the ONS Data Science Campus, the advancement of the Data Science Accelerator, and the creation of clear career paths for data scientists
  • Increase diversity through recruitment and development practices
  • Embed digital tools and techniques in other professions
  • Support non-digital specialists to understand new ways of working, use digital platforms, and improve data literacy
  • Ensure future leaders can manage digital projects effectively
  • Make policy based on user research, including iterative techniques

Received wisdom will tell you that culture remains an eternal and sizeable stumbling block to government transformation. A common perception is that the strictures of departmental silos all too often get in the way of driving change – or at least doing so with any degree of rapidity or consistency.

But Cunnington says that “the civil service isn’t a group of warring fiefdoms, as is sometimes portrayed”.

“It’s important that we recognise that departments are responsible and accountable to parliament. But that isn’t preventing transformation. It is fostering a real collaborative spirit, as shown recently by DWP and HMCTS working together on the courts and tribunal reform,” he adds.

The Digital Data and Technology (DDaT) capability framework was published little more than a month after the release of the strategy. The framework mapped 38 common roles across data science, IT operations, service design, product management, quality assurance and technical architecture.

More recently a progressive pay structure based on external market rates has been introduced.

Cunnington believes these measures will have “a tremendous impact”.

“The changes we have made are fundamental to solve issues like staff retention and government’s ability to attract the right talent,” he says. “We have identified 38 job families which allows the GDS Academy to develop courses to meet specific requirements. But, most importantly, we have agreed a common pay approach that will reduce cross-department tension and the need for staff to apply for new roles to remain on competitive pay.”

Henry Rex, head of public sector at techUK, claims that the development of cross-government professions – including DDaT, but also in 27 other areas – has helped smooth the way for transformation, but that structural challenges still remain.

“If you look at the cross-Whitehall groups and communities of practice, and the cross-Whitehall professions that have been established and taken root over the last few years, it is going in the right direction, in terms of breaking down those departmental silos,” he says. “But it is fair to say that there is not going to be a total revision of the way Whitehall works and a tearing down of the historic Whitehall departments.”

Government digital and data training programmes have also expanded, beginning with what is now the GDS Academy being moved to the central digital agency in May 2017, having previously been housed in the Department for Work and Pensions. The academy now offers a range of courses for specialists and non-specialists from locations in Leeds, London, Newcastle and Manchester. It has also run pop-up training centres in Edinburgh, Newport and Birmingham.

 


Tools and processes

Targets for 2020

  • Install common interoperable technology across government buildings
  • Provide public servants with tools that can be used regardless of location
  • Explore opportunities for common tools for standard government functions
  • Increase governance of spending on projects and digital services
  • Promote digital procurement practices and create a new ‘end-to-end’ marketplace

The implementation of GovWifi – which was launched in late 2016 and rolled out more widely from September 2017 onwards – is perhaps the biggest success story in this section of the transformation plan.

The service frequently adds more than 1,000 new registrants a day to a total which, at time of writing, stands at 270,000. Usage of GovWifi has shot up in the last 12 months, with about 80,000 connections now made to the service each day, compared with about 30,000 in January 2018.

The government has also made good on its pledge to deliver “earlier engagement on spending plans between departments and GDS”. The latest iteration of the spending controls overseen by GDS mandates that department provide details of planned spending on technology projects and digital development for a 15-month pipeline. However, those same controls also give departments greater freedom to effectively self-certify plans they believe can be filed under “business-as-usual” spending.  Some have expressed concern that this could diminish GDS’s ability to ensure best practice and snuff out ill-conceived projects.

The strategy also alludes to the creation of the Crown Marketplace – which was first conceived in late 2015 as an “Amazonesque” platform through which the public sector will be able to procure a comprehensive range of goods and services. The project to create the marketplace has been through several strategic shifts, but the Crown Commercial Service expects to have the first parts of the marketplace live in the coming months, and maintains that the final version will still resemble something close to the original vision of an online superstore for government.

 


Use of data

Targets for 2020

  • Use data to improve public services – particularly across organisational boundaries
  • Open up government data internally and externally, including through the use of APIs
  • Allow data to be shared across government via the Digital Economy bill
  • Appoint a chief data officer for government
  • Establish a data advisory board
  • Build and expand data capability among both analysts and non-analysts
  • Use data securely and appropriately and promote good data ethics
  • Improve data discovery tools
  • Transform how data repositories are stored and managed

Within three months of the publication of the transformation plan, the Digital Economy Act had been passed into law. The legislation was intended, among other things, to make it easier for public sector agencies to share data with one another.

But, almost two years on, complaints about barriers to the cross-government flow of information – whether procedural, cultural, or technical – remain commonplace. Government’s data function has also been moved, with responsibility for policy, governance and data sharing shifted from GDS to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport at the beginning of the 2019 fiscal year. DCMS is now working on the development of a national data strategy.

Rex from techUK says that of the five areas of the strategy, “data sharing is the area where there has been less progress than the other pillars”.

One of the most obvious shortcomings of the strategy’s rollout so far is the failure to appoint a chief data officer for government.

“From a point of view of driving this agenda, it would be a useful position to have filled – a champion and evangelist for driving data sharing,” Rex says. “There are communities of practice and people in government who are fully seized of the opportunity and the need to improve data-sharing and there are, I’m sure, great examples of good practice. But, across Whitehall, it is the area of the strategy where more progress needs to be made.”

Gavin Freeguard, programme director at the Institute for Government think tank, agrees that “departmental silos” remain an obstacle to data sharing.

“The chief data officer is something we would be quite keen to see – they could drive a lot of reforms,” he adds.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jo Platt (left), meanwhile, believes that the strategy should have shown greater appreciation of the value and sensitivity of citizen data.

“The strategy seeks to open government data as widely as possible without imposing a social value test,” she says. “Government data is a public asset and should be treated as such, but this strategy treats such data as a way of meeting targets, rather than delivering for the social good.”

 


Shared components and platforms

Targets for 2020

  • Exit large single supplier and multi-year contracts
  • Build shared components and platforms and extend the use of those that already exist
  • Develop and publish standards and implementation guidelines
  • Remove barriers to reuse of components
  • Operate existing components to increased standards of security and reliability
  • Make better use of Verify and work to grow user base to 25 million
  • Expand the number of available and supported APIs
  • Share internationally what has already been built and learn from best practice in other countries
  • Remove legacy content and end outdated publishing practices by 2020

One of the most eye-catching targets of the strategy – the goal of signing up 25 million users to identity-assurance service Verify – has become one of its highest-profile setbacks.

Although registration has grown exponentially in recent months, having doubled in the last year to its current total of almost 3.5 million users, the number of registrants has clearly still fallen a long way short of initial expectations.

In October, the decision was taken to hand over responsibility for the service to five of its private sector partners. At the end of a contracted 18-month handover period, no more government funding will be put into the service.

Coca Rivas, a former civil servant with experience at GDS, the Ministry of Justice and HM Revenue and Customs, who is now head of strategy at public sector digital specialist dxw, says GDS’s wider Government as a Platform approach – which includes the payments platform Pay and the messaging tool Notify as well as Verify – has seen “mixed success” in the last two years.

“We’ve lots of first-hand evidence that local governments are keen to use Pay, for example, but it’s not ready for them,” she says. “They need something they can just plug in. To make Pay work for local government requires more tech understanding than they have [...]. Notify works because it doesn’t need that kind of input.”

But driving the use of centrally created templates to help departments design online services has been more successful, according to Rivas.

“We’re definitely seeing more consistency across citizen-facing services in terms of how they work – using the design system, seeing the same patterns being used again and again; and how they’re developed – using the service manual and working towards the service standards,” she says.

In the last two years, efforts have continued to break up large or exclusive IT contracts and relet the constituent parts to a broader ecosystem of providers. But a number of departments – including the MoJ, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office – have found that disaggregation has taken longer than expected, leading to the retention of existing suppliers on hefty contracts for months, or even years beyond what was originally planned.

Guidance published 15 months ago by the Government Commercial Function advised departments that the process of exiting large technology engagements could take up to four years.

When asked whether disaggregation has been harder than expected, Cunnington says: “We always expected this to be difficult, but there has been considerable progress within departments and agencies. Spend controls has been a vital component, and we saved £450m in 2016/17 alone – up from £339m in 15/16.”

 


What next?

As the strategy enters the home stretch, Rex from techUK says that the ongoing select committee inquiry into digital government “has come at a good time to give a bit of political impetus” to efforts to become more open to innovation.

He adds that there is a risk of “losing ground” as government works towards its SME spend goals, though he doesn’t think this risk has materialised yet.

Nevertheless he says that replacing small business crown representative Emma Jones, who left her post at the end of 2018, should be a priority.

“Making demonstrable progress in encouraging data sharing in Whitehall would also be very welcome,” he adds.

Rivas from dxw says the impending Spending Review could be a litmus test for how much departments have bought into the transformation vision.

“We hope government departments work closely with their digital teams – who have come on in leaps and bounds – to properly resource and prioritise [their] work and make sure this is fully integrated into corporate strategies and plans,” she says.

The strategy itself, meanwhile, could benefit from being “more concrete – setting clear goals for departments to collaborate, and prioritising the transformation of large-volume services”, according to Rivas.

Freeguard from the IfG echoes this view: “Our take on the strategy is that there are some good intentions in there, but what we need to see is some implementation plans for making those things happen.”

Shadow minister Platt believes “the biggest problem with the Government Transformation Strategy was that it identified the wrong ambitions and failed to confront the existing challenges that government was facing”.

“What was needed in 2017 was a stocktake of the progress since GDS began, and a renewed ambition statement,” she says. “The government’s failure to recognise the changing forces within the civil service over that period set up this strategy for failure.”

Regardless of your view on the success (or otherwise) of the strategy, it is clear that the process of transforming government will continue far beyond this time next year.

When asked whether a new strategy will be needed from 2020 onwards and what such a plan might look like, GDS chief Cunnington says “it’s too early to say definitively what is next”.

“We still have a year to go […] and we’re focused on delivering right until the end,” he adds. “We’ve learned that we need to be flexible for whatever happens next

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Sam Trendall
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Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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