Transforming government through digital and technology

Written by Gill Hitchcock on 17 July 2017 in Feature

Digital technology is having an impact on civil service workplaces, but is that enough to drive transformation? Gill Hitchcock reports on a recent round table discussion

When government released its Transformation Strategy last year, there was a notable absence. The plan follows on from the 2012 Government Digital Strategy, but why had the ‘d’ word been dropped? At a recent Civil Service World round table to discuss transforming public services – organised in partnership with digital transformation leader Sopra Steria – David Best, director of digital services and technology, Office for National Statistics, gave one clue: “There is a general level of cultural understanding about what digital is, and we are reaching a stage quickly where digital is becoming an unuseful term because it is being applied to everything from bookshelves to computer purchasing.”

Yet recent research confirms that a growing number of civil servants recognise the importance of ‘digital’ and this year nearly 90% said it was changing the way they work, up from 70% in 2015. The figures, from Sopra Steria’s third consecutive annual Government Digital Trends Survey, also show that for most civil servants, 64%, their role is benefiting from a shift to digital, against 59% in 2015. 

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If digital has outlived its useful life as a term, without it transformation is dead in the water. 

The original Government Digital Strategy was published when Francis Maude was Cabinet Office minister. Maude took ownership of the digital transformation agenda and, throwing his political weight behind a number of reforms, was responsible for pushing through several important innovations. Reflecting on this, a number of the participants agreed that the civil service currently lacked a minister who, like Maude, understood digital transformation and was prepared to drive change. 

But Best pointed out that the civil service itself needed leaders who understood the potential of digital – along with programmers and developers who were familiar with solutions like AI and robotics, and knowledge of their potential for transformation.

Sopra Steria’s survey –  covering nearly 4,500 civil servants over the past three years – indicated the top three skills gaps among civil servants working on digital projects. Nearly 45% said that development and service design skills were lacking, while 37% identified agile delivery management. 

These gaps are made more severe by fierce competition from private sector organisations who also know the value of good digital staff. Matthew Archer, head of digital design and capability at HMRC, illustrated this by saying that in a single day one of HMRC’s digital service teams had lost 25% of its developers to Sky. To solve the problem, HMRC had since expanded its capacity in other digital delivery centres across the UK where there is less competition.

In a separate initiative, over the past two years HMRC has built a network of digital ambassadors: individuals who take an active role in supporting their colleagues to develop. Archer said there were now about 1,000 ambassadors with an explicit agenda to bring digital skills up to a certain standard. 

“There is a guerrilla digital economy growing within government of people who really want to do the right thing, but how do we scale that and get knowledge sharing?” asked Tom McCann, director for UK central government at Sopra Steria.

“What works for me is having a contact in GDS,” said Glen Portman, head of agency transformation at the Legal Aid Agency, with responsibility for driving through new processes, including automation and self-service. “It costs me a coffee and a cake every fortnight, but the advice I get is great.” 

Portman wanted to find a way to formalise that kind of advice within government. Others agreed that GDS had lost its way and should reassert its role and champion technology and innovation. 

“GDS needs to reset itself,” said Tony Singleton, programme director at the Department for Education. “We need some sort of centre of excellence so that if you don’t know what technology to use, or you don’t know what is best, there is that active sharing. And I would like to see GDS going out into departments with those sorts of messages.” 

“There is a guerrilla digital economy growing within government of people who really want to do the right thing.” Tom McCann, director for UK central government, Sopra Steria

Until it does, some civil servants are taking the initiative. Philip Craig, director of strategy for the government sector at Sopra Steria, said one of the positive messages from the survey was that civil servants were taking it upon themselves to try and fill the capacity gap within government.

“We’ve seen increasing levels of civil servants who talk about self-directed study,” he said.

“They’re not going to wait for the next training programme.” This year, 36% of those surveyed said they engaged in self-directed study in their own time, a jump from 24% in 2015.

At the Department for Transport, hackathons are another self-directed route to digital awareness. Tom Miles, digital content and intranet manager at the department, said: “It’s been an individual who’s seen another organisation, usually in the private sector, running a hackathon, and thought ‘you know what, I’m going to do that’, and they have just gone off and organised it. It’s good they feel comfortable that they can do this.” 

But while some people said this type of initiative was down to ‘digital natives’, and there would be more as departments drew in a younger workforce, others thought it was not about age but individuals. It was always the same people who took part.

Louis Barson, head of the challenger business programme at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, called for better links between service providers and departments with technology problems. “Potentially there is opportunity for more inspiration and material about the potential of what businesses can supply in terms of solutions, and the effectiveness of those solutions in implementation,” he said.

But for Alice Lacourt, legal adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, digital success does not depend entirely on leadership. “If it’s a great product, it will have its own momentum.”

And for Hugh Strickland, head of strategy and engagement at the Office for National Statistics, there remained a lack of understanding of what digital actually means. “For the majority of people in their day-to-day work, do they really understand this thing called digital skills so that they know what they should be learning or upskilling on?” he asked. However, Caroline Murray, senior HR business partner at HMRC, said her department had invested significantly in new equipment for staff which had the effect of inspiring them to find out more about the potential of their new devices.

Financial constraints can make keeping up with rapid changes in technology hard. Participants talked about the frustrations of experiencing a gap between the latest technology at home, and out-of-date systems at work. There were frustrations too as people moved between departments and found that what they were used to doing in one, they could not do in another. 

The group focused on how to resolve this and there were calls for better sharing of digital knowledge and experience between departments. In the view of Dionne Farrington, senior design analyst at HMRC, transformation should be cross-departmental and, very importantly, for the benefit of users.

Strickland proposed that a Bring Your Own Device policy could be efficient and cost effective for the civil service. The discussion turned to where this worked well in other areas, during which Best said that an Australian census last year used BYOD for its field force very successfully, without problems with confidentiality or deployment.

The Government Transformation Strategy talks about the imperative to change at pace and at scale. But, as Best pointed out, transformation needs a fit-for-purpose infrastructure. The NHS ‘WannaCry’ ransomware attack in May was an example of what can happen if you don’t protect the core IT infrastructure of an organisation.

“I think the rush to whizzy tools can sometimes mask the need to maintain that basic integrity,” Best said. “And it’s vital to get that bit right in the overall transformation.”

To download the Government Digital Trends Report, click here

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