It’s just over a year since the government published its roadmap for digital and data reform from 2022 to 2025. The plan, titled Transforming for a Digital Future, set out six missions which aim to improve service delivery and the day-to-day operation of government. To most observers of government digital reform, these missions – which include things like building digital skills, tackling legacy tech and improving key digital services – seem remarkably familiar. And that, according to Will Joss, head of strategy at the Cabinet Office’s Central Digital and Data Office, is a feature rather than a bug.
According to Joss, the missions are “about formalising and creating clear plans for lots of the things we’ve been talking about for the last few years – and to be honest, that’s the point.”
Speaking at a roundtable convened by CSW and Civica to discuss progress against the roadmap, Joss explained: “We spent a lot of time last year listening to what different colleagues across government were saying and then collectively shaping those missions around the biggest problems.”
He added that the “roadmap wasn’t designed to be easy – we very carefully and deliberately worked with departments to try and pitch the missions and commitments so that they were ambitious, but achievable.”
So where did attendees see the most progress towards those missions, and where do the biggest challenges remain? As the discussion moved across different goals and themes of digital reform, one factor appeared as a crucial enabler for progress: building a better understanding of digital and data across the civil service.
Improving digital skills across government – both in the DDaT (Digital, Data, and Technology) function and more widely – is the fifth of the six roadmap missions. Joss noted that there has been strong progress in terms of building capability within the DDaT function. “We’re seeing sustained growth of the DDaT function and the common DDaT pay framework has been adopted by all central departments,” he said, adding: “That’s helping departments to recruit and retain the skilled digital people that they need.”
Tony Coyne, head of data science and data analysis in the Department for Business and Trade, highlighted the importance of the DDaT pay and capability frameworks in achieving the latter goal. These, he said, were “transformative” in helping the then-Department for International Trade reduce reliance on contractors and managed services. “Even with the capability frame, we still have particular problems in some roles,” he said. “But if we hadn’t adopted [it], we would be in a much worse position.”
But participants also stressed the importance of digital education beyond the DDaT profession and noted what Mark Humphries described as a “gradual but relentless increase in data literacy” across government in recent years. Emma Hyland, head of data in the Home Office’s Illegal Migration Operational Command Centre, explained how her department has implemented a “significant piece of work” rolling out a number of data-literacy training courses to support its digital reform plans.
This work includes mandatory online training for senior civil servants and virtual sessions made available for all staff during a “data and information week”. Although attendance at the latter sessions was voluntary, Hyland said the take-up was bigger than any previous data week. “Brilliantly, the representation of attendees wasn’t all from digital and data,” she added. “There were a lot of operational [workers] and staff across all the grades, which was fantastic to see.”
"If people understand digital and data better, they’ll care about it more and that makes everything easier" James Holliss, Civica
Hyland also explained that linking data issues to real-world issues helped to deepen understanding. She gave the example of tackling the ever-growing digital heap – collections of unorganised, unstructured digital documents and information – and how the training courses had quantified the carbon emissions of this in terms of return transatlantic flights. This resonated with people and encouraged them to do something about it.
She reflected that alongside this work on training – perhaps because of it – she has noticed that messages around the importance of data as a strategic asset are really starting to sink in across the organisation.
Improving data literacy can also “pave the way for wider transformational changes that are more cultural, and technology based”, according to James Holliss, a customer solutions consultant at Civica. “Because if people understand [digital and data] better, they’ll care about it more and that makes everything easier,” he said.
The most obvious link is between improving data literacy and achieving mission three of the roadmap, which sets out an ambition to improve decision making in government by improving availability, quality and governance of key data assets as well as tackling at least half of the “high priority” data-quality issues across government.
One key challenge here is to both assess existing data quality and build a system which encourages everyone – not just data specialists – to help improve that quality. Tanya Otterson, business improvement manager for transformation at Northern Ireland agency InvestNI, noted that her team was struggling to incentivise account managers to capture accurate customer data – something the managers view as just admin, even while they complain about the quality of data in their systems. Might it be possible, she wondered, to assess data in the systems and link this to performance data of the account managers?
Something like this is already being done in the Home Office, Hyland responded. Working with consultants, her team has created a way to assess data in specific systems against “dimensions of completeness, timeliness, and conformity with data standards.” She added, however, that while they can now give an assurance rating for data in those systems, the next challenge is what to do with that rating. “You can tell your business owners that their data is 20% accurate, but in the face of massive operational pressures and priorities, how do you then get that ownership?”
So the next steps for the Home Office, she says, will be considering how to remodel the information-asset owner structure so that “where somebody is responsible for data quality, they know what that means, they’re being told where they have issues within their data quality, and they actually feel responsible for doing something about that.”
Humphries added that Civica is trialling a similar approach with one client, where data quality metrics are mapped onto core data processes, enabling the organisation to say whether data being fed into those processes is fit – or not fit – for purpose. “That’s really good for getting traction,” he notes, as leaders realise that if data in a core process is not fit for purpose, they cannot trust the outcomes of that process.
However, Deirdre Heatley, a programme manager at the Police Service of Northern Ireland, cautioned that improving quality is not always a case of simply improving data ownership. In contexts like policing the complexities of data, collection must also be considered. “Generally, the members of the public we engage with actually don’t want to engage with us. So collecting the data is a challenge in the first place,” she noted.
Of the six roadmap missions, the one which has “got people most excited”, according to Joss, is the first. Mission one aims to embed digital approaches and cross-functional teams across key government priorities and to move at least 50 of government’s top 75 services to a “great” standard against a new, consistently applied service measure.
There has already been strong collaborative work from service teams across government to develop the new service measure, Joss said, while Humphries noted that the very concrete focus on key services has had a parallel impact on data-improvement work. “The customers we work with are saying ‘if we’re going to make improvements [in this service] we really need to improve our data quality’. And so, we’ve seen a sort of parallel interest working up in terms of data quality [around these services].”
But there is still much work to be done. CDDO’s own assessment is that around 20% of the top services are great at the moment, Joss said, and roughly 25% are good. “There’s obviously quite a lot [of services] that need to move up that spectrum to get where we want to. Many already do have transformation plans in place, but it’s a really big task in the next couple of years to make sure the funding and prioritisation is there to do it.”
As the group discussed the challenge of budget constraints and competing priorities across government, Hyland suggested that here, again, improved digital literacy could be helpful. Lack of investment can sometimes stem not just from limited budgets, she suggested, but from leaders not understanding the value of investing in digital and data. Raising overall digital literacy among decision makers could encourage them to understand that “an investment in data and tech upfront is going to lead to efficiencies and it will lead to unlocking some of those automation processes, which will lead to further efficiencies.”
Meeting the goal of improving key services will link closely with several of the other missions, such as mission two, around the rollout of a government-wide sign-in system through OneLogin; and mission six, which aims to remove systemic barriers to digital transformation and create more product-centric and agile organisations in government.
To achieve this mission will require more than just effort and collaboration across the DDaT function, Joss said: “It’s going to need sustained input and engagement from other functions, and from business leaders, to drive the kind of change we want to see to how we do things like funding and delivery.”
Yet this system-wide change will be vital to more than just service improvement. Ros-Mari Mitova, chief of staff in the CDIO’s office at the Ministry of Justice, said there is a fundamental challenge when it comes to attracting skilled people into the civil service, and digital reform can help address that. “The workforce will change immensely in the coming years, and we need to make sure that we’re able to translate that into how we work,” she said, adding that “at one point we’re going to exhaust the amount of people that want to work in an organisation that relies on outdated monolith legacy technology”.
Sally Wareham, assistant head digitalisation at Army HQ, also reflected on the importance of understanding what digital reform and new technology will mean for people across government in order to help adoption of new technologies and approaches.
Driving change across an organisation as large and complex as the Army requires her to constantly adapt her messaging and approach for different groups, she said. “The challenge is showing the ‘So what?’ for the users to adopt change. You will always get resistance to change – it’s human nature – so you need to be able to target audiences differently.”
“You can’t do change or digital improvement to people,” she added. “You have to get them to do it to themselves and make sure that they feel comfortable at each stage of that.”
Although her focus is on rolling out small changes at first, Wareham described her longer-term vision as building an organisation that has a “baked-in digital culture” so that when a new generation of digitally confident leaders and officials emerge, they will be able to “pick it up and run with it”.
Her vision chimed with a challenge from Mitova, as the group reflected on change beyond the end of the roadmap in 2025. “We need to evolve out of writing big strategies,” she suggested. “While it’s useful to have a digital strategy as a way to convene conversation and coordinate action, there’s something unnatural about having large, modern organisations such as the civil service still relying on a separate digital strategy rather than simply having an ambitious strategy which has digital embedded into it.”
This roundtable formed part of wider research around governmen'ts digital and data reform plans, carried out by Civica and CSW. You can see the results of this research here