Why Theresa May's ministers must not forget about digital government

With the new government focused on Brexit, Theresa May and Philip Hammond have not voiced their support for making government digital – but the potential for savings is huge

By Daniel Thornton

31 Oct 2016

When my daughter was born at the end of the last century we went on a bureaucratic journey to make her official, involving a large number of phone calls, documents and form-filling. As part of our research for a new Institute for Government report on making a success of digital government (see below), I wanted to see how things have changed. The answer was: not much.

In 2016, parents still fill out forms and make appointments on the phone. They are left to navigate between the council, the NHS and central government. This is a hassle for all concerned and costs more than it needs to.

There is progress in getting more services online, and making existing services better – but that progress is too slow, and too many projects end in failure.

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With the new government focused on Brexit, Theresa May and Philip Hammond have not voiced their support for making government digital, and the government’s digital strategy has been delayed. This is despite the fact that putting more services online, making them easier to use, and automating processes behind the scenes could save £2bn by 2020.

There are plenty of public sector digital services that work well and don’t hit the news – but there are some that simply haven’t worked. The first phase of Universal Credit, e-borders, and payments to farmers are the most obvious examples. Since 2000, more than £10bn has been spent on government IT projects that fall in this category.

There are six challenges to overcome before the government can make a success of digital:

  1. The government needs to recognise the scale of change that is required in services, organisations, processes and ways of working. This will require leadership beyond digital teams and IT departments. Permanent secretaries and heads of agencies need to “get” digital and make sure that their organisations are prepared to adapt and work across organisational boundaries. And ultimately the impetus needs to come from ministers.
  2. There is a huge gap between policy and digital. But policymakers in government need to understand how technology can create new options for policy. Before automatic number plate recognition was available, creating a congestion charge for central London would have meant toll booths – which would have created more traffic. So understanding digital technology needs to be built in early to the policymaking process, which will mean the policy profession and the Government Digital Service working together in a new way.
  3. The technology needs updating. Some of the public sector’s main services – such as pensions – run on systems going back to the 1980s. These are slow, inflexible and insecure. These systems will need to be updated if the full benefits are to be realised.
  4. “Agile” development involves decision-making which is swift, and as close to the ground as possible. This is not how decisions are made in government. It is important that government has mechanisms to manage risk and make sure that work progresses as it should, but its current processes are incompatible with digital development. Governance of digital projects needs to be improved and people need to learn the specialist skills to do this.
  5. Recruiting and retaining staff with the skills needed to manage digital transformation is hard, particularly around London. Government needs to continue to build centres of expertise outside London, and to develop specialist terms and conditions to recruit digital staff.
  6. GDS needs to be clear about its role and how digital can support everyone in the civil service. Its new head, Kevin Cunnington, has said that GDS will focus on supporting departments with digital transformation. We await the digital strategy to find out what this means.

Filing your tax return should be as easy as doing online banking. The technology exists. Making a success of digital government – which would make services better for citizens and save billions – requires leadership. Civil servants need to improve their skills, old systems need to be overhauled, and policies need to be updated.

Theresa May’s government is not making digital a high enough priority – which is a missed opportunity for government and citizens.

IFG Digital Government Report by CivilServiceWorld on Scribd

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