How the government’s Covid-19 response revealed the real barriers to transformation

The government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic saw projects rolled out at unprecedented speed. A panel of officials came together to share how they did it – and what the lessons are. By Charlotte Newbury and Richard Johnstone
The government's three major coronavirus support schemes. Pic: GOV.UK


A more focused digital transformation agenda is likely to emerge across government in response to the coronavirus pandemic, a number of senior figures have told Civil Service World.

Speaking at a CSW roundtable, held in partnership with Dell Boomi, top officials said the speed of the coronavirus outbreak – and the response required – had emphasised the key elements of digital transformation, and may point the way to a stripped back approach in the future.

Jo Rowland, director of the Covid-19 response unit in HMRC spoke of how “we did not have time for doubt” in its reaction. She told the attendees of how the department had as little as 48 hours to understand the scale of the task ahead.

“In that 48 hours we had to work up very fast delivery advice to the chancellor on his chosen schemes [the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Self-Employment Income Support], and we had to mobilise whole teams.”

'We had to tweak the way we work'

Like many other parts of government HMRC had to do this while its workforce moved to work from home, and Sunitha Chacko, the deputy director, design authority and data at HMRC added that “the scale of the transformation required here was huge.”

“We had to tweak the way we work,” she said. “We’re so used to being in the office, having those face-to-face conversations, and in spite of the challenges, we really had to tweak our culture and our ways of working.”

Other officials from across government, and across the UK, agreed that the coronavirus response had led to changes in their way of working.

Joy Bramfitt-Wanless, the head of product and delivery in digital transformation at the Scottish Government, highlighted that one immediate change was greater collaboration. “You couldn't do this if you worked in your silos,” she said.

Areas of collaboration highlighted in the session included the Department for Work and Pensions helping to address the backlog of personal protective equipment deliveries early in the pandemic.

This cross-departmental support was one element of response “that probably people don’t think about,” said Jacqui Leggetter, the integration product delivery unit lead and deputy director, integration technologies, at the Department for Work and Pensions.

“You'll all remember the very early days of the crisis when we had empty supermarket shelves, nobody could get pasta, flour or toilet rolls, and we were also struggling to get kit to hospitals, because we had lost a lot of our lorry drivers self-isolating,” she highlighted. “We worked really closely with DVLA to help them to validate and identify more drivers, to get more on the road. So we helped that wider government effort through opening up some of our data to other departments.”

Another example was opening up the national citizen database to help the NHS and other agencies identify the people aged over 70 who were most vulnerable from Covid, which Leggetter described as “outside traditional DWP business”.

“We got involved in that as part of that cross-government working, which I think my colleagues across government will recognise was prevalent through the response to the crisis, and still is.”

Paul Bute, head of consular strategy and network at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, told a similar collaboration story.

When lockdowns across the globe meant people could not get to a consulate, the Foreign Office worked with the Home Office to remotely validate requests for emergency travel documents.

“In order to do that, you'd usually need to go to a consulate, and then you'd need to wait and collect your emergency travel document,” he said.

“That was no longer possible, so we worked at speed with the Home Office, to issue these emergency travel documents remotely and courier them out to wherever the British person who needed them was, even if that was in a hotel. That was a significant innovation for us.”

That close working between home and foreign departments was crucial. “The sense of shared purpose was powerful,” said Bute. “I think both the Home Office and the Foreign Office probably did that at speed which in times of business as usual would have been unprecedented.”

The Covid response also provided clarity of scope for policies and programmes.

“One of the things that we had to do in the crisis is deliver fast, and to deliver fast, we had to keep it ruthlessly simple,” Rowland said. “We used the technology that was already on our estate, we kept the core outcome as the absolute focus of our minds, and we did not get waylaid by lots of extra requirements.”

The pared-down approach showed that although government has supposedly used digital agile techniques, Rowland said: “I'd argue that we we've not deployed agile in the true sense.”

“Often our ambition starts too complex, too early. What we should do is strip back to: what is the main outcome we're after? What is within our reach now to get that outcome? Then how do we build on it and improve it?”

“One of the things that we had to do in the crisis is deliver fast, and to deliver fast, we had to keep it ruthlessly simple” Jo Rowland

Colin Gray, director, central government, at Dell Boomi, agreed. “We need to look at outcomes,” he said. “We can get too complex, too early and we need to keep it simple; we need to look at outcomes before we jump straight into the complexity.

“That’s what we centre our services on: keeping it simple and agile, and providing business outcomes very, very quickly.”

Dell Boomi has been helping one UK jurisdiction do just that. Will Eccles, the global head of professional services, shared details of the digitisation work the firm had been working on with the government of Gibraltar.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, this had been focused on converting traditionally paper-based to online submissions– from passport and visa applications to reports of potholes.

“We've been working with a few departments: employment, tax, education, health, and borders. We’ve been transforming those processes, using our technology, so that the engagement with the citizen moves from paper-based to one where you can submit it using your phone, your tablet, or desktop.”

Eccles said this had been rolled out across many services before Covid hit through the development of a government login, through which citizens can access all these services, and was quickly extended to health provision.

“We digitized the health card application or renewal process that was paper-based on that foundation that we already had, and we did that in days.” And the system was resilient when a significant amount of the Gibraltar population submitted a health card renewal, he said.

Alongside the development of the citizen-facing system, there was also the need to develop all the back-office technology to process the requests.

“Their plan of consolidation and supporting a move to digital at that scale has been really exciting to work on,” he said. “But we've had to overcome very similar challenges to what I'm hearing from this group, on the speed you can move.”

Learning lessons

Some of these lessons from the pandemic are already being applied. Leggetter said that the DWP had been able to quicken elements of its own transformation programme around automation of identity verification when it became apparent that services which rely on face-to-face contact were no longer feasible.

This unblocked a key part of the Universal Credit process, and the department is now thinking about where else it can be applied. “I think there were two and a half million claims sitting in the backlog at that point, and it completely unlocked those and got them to the first stage and first payment. That process automation was a big thing for us, made us think about how we use that going forward.

Indeed, the key lessons for future transformation were summed up by Bramfitt-Wanless, who said the job now was to review what changes were made to deliver Covid-related projects and see if they can be applied more widely.

“Look at which constraints we moved out of the way to make these things happen at speed: things like having to go through multiple governance layers before we can move, having the right people involved before we can do anything, asking permission of a multitude of people before we move forward. There were certainly risks in doing that, so let’s identify what the risks were, and how many of them were actually realised.

“We need to look at our processes and say – which of these is slowing us down, and how can we remove some of those, so then it doesn’t have to be a global pandemic for us to move at speed.”

Read the most recent articles written by Charlotte Newbury and Richard Johnstone - ‘There’s burnout we need to watch for’: civil servants reflect on the impact of coronavirus and home working

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