By Jonathan Owen

16 Oct 2019

Technological change presents an opportunity for things to be done in a different way. Jonathan Owen reports on a round table where leading civil servants came together to work out how to go about stimulating digital innovation

Jonathan Slater, permanent secretary for the Department for Education, chaired the discussion, which was sponsored by IT and business consultancy BJSS and took place at Civil Service Live in London. After admitting his relative lack of expertise in the area being discussed, he told a story about his own recent experience of what technology can offer.

“My daughter had her SATs results, she’s 11, earlier this week...she was best at maths, why? Because a couple of years ago she was introduced to a rather interesting digital product which enabled her to learn maths without any human intervention...her homework being set by computer to her exact standard,” he said. Turning to the business of government tech, Slater said that there have been “some success stories” and remarked that it is a question of “how we make sure we do this right.”

It is not only a question for government internally, but for other parts of society. Charities are one example. Maria Nyberg, deputy director, sector support team, Office for Civil Society, said: “We run a number of programmes in my team where we get behind the charity sector, increase confidence and capability and help them innovate using digital platforms.”

Rupert McNeil, government chief people officer, suggested that Brexit would help “create lots of opportunities for innovation” and added: “necessity is the mother of invention.” In his view, a number of things are converging that will help stimulate innovation. “We’ve got the ability to give people the skills to exploit this, thanks to the digital academy, we’ve also got lower barriers to entry for innovation, in terms of platforms we are working with and the ways in which you can do that.” 

He added: “The third thing that I’m really interested in from a shared services perspective is this distinction between innovating through customising and making things and innovation through configuring systems in different ways.” McNeil explained: “So the customisation is one thing but how do we actually show people the functionality they can get and innovate with within existing systems?” 

A key issue is how innovation in the private sector can be harnessed and brought “inside government in an effective way,” according to David Taylor, chief commercial officer at the Home Office. He commented: “The provision of digital services will be at the heart of our new immigration and borders position in a post-EU exit world.”

'Several challenges need to be overcome if the potential of digital innovation is to be realised'

The process of automation could help stimulate innovation by freeing up staff, Taylor argued. “In my profession, in commercial procurement, probably 60 to 70 per cent of what we do could be automated…it’s another opportunity for the civil service to look at how we digitise many of our functions and then focus the people on some of the more challenging strategic challenges.”

Collaboration was raised as a vital element in enabling innovation, as was an approach of fully utilising existing digital resources and not being afraid to fail when trying new things. 

At the Ministry of Defence, the department had recognised “the culture we had would not fit experimentation, of trying to do things differently, so the Defence and Security Accelerator was created as a body which sat outside the usual business,” Dr Tony Collins, international innovation partner, DASA, said.

There was general support for a more user-centred and networked approach rather than a traditional departmental one. Another theme that emerged was how working within some common standards would help people to work together.

However, several challenges need to be overcome if the potential of digital innovation is to be realised. These include making sure that people have the data and analytical skills to get the most out of digital technology, according to Susan Acland-Hood, chief executive, HM Courts and Tribunals Service. “The question is what do you ask of your big data?” she said.

Chris Ferguson, director, Government Digital Service, called for a fundamental change in approach. “What we need to grapple with is culture change, how we buy things, how we see risk in the civil service in terms of delivery, procurement and contracting, how we hire, how we train people,” he said. “We need to think about how we move culturally from team-oriented goals into network-oriented goals, where we recognise that your data model has to work with my data model.” 

Having better and more consistent data standards across government, led by GDS, would help to address the problem of departments having different ways of working which can complicate the sharing of data, according to Acland-Hood. Such standards “should be permissive rather than prescriptive,” she added.

Having a service design perspective, focused on what the user needs are, can help in developing “platforms that you can deliver that can help to scale those services that are required,” Susheel Dodeja, head of government and healthcare practice, BJSS, suggested. 

There needs to be a different approach to thinking about uncertainty, with a greater focus on tackling problems and achieving outcomes rather than the traditional programme orientated approach, according to Carla Groom, head of behavioural science at the Department for Work and Pensions. 

There was agreement around the table that a culture of experimentation, accepting the risks of failure that come with trying out new things, would help foster innovation. 

Bringing the discussion to a close, Slater commented: “We’re working for a cabinet secretary for who it’s all about how we can join up around the needs of the citizen.” He reiterated the opportunities that digital technology presents and encouraged his colleagues “to be demanding” in what they seek and set out the changes they think are needed to realise the potential gains offered by innovation.

BJSS Ltd is the UK's leading privately-owned IT and Business consultancy. As one of the largest technology providers to the UK Central Government, BJSS works extensively with public sector organisations. We have deployed our Queen's Award-winning delivery approach - Enterprise Agile, to help organisations including the Home Office, FC, DVSA and Disclosure Scotland to transform the way they provide their services.

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