Send civil servants on secondments to unlock innovation, new government strategy says

Other initiatives unveiled in hotly anticipated strategy include a cross-government plan to ‘tackle legacy technology’

Photo: Chris McAndrew/CC BY SA 3.0

By Sam Trendall

12 Jun 2019

The long-awaited Government Technology Innovation Strategy has set out plans to boost the number of civil servants on secondments to digital companies to “learn from their innovative culture”.

The strategy was first announced in August, when it was revealed that a dedicated team within the Government Digital Service had been established to deliver the strategy and spearhead government information more widely, also sets out plans to develop a government-wide understanding of Whitehall’s legacy technology estate and “put in place plans to tackle it”.  

The document, which originally scheduled to publish by the end of March, has now been released, and Its proposals are split into three categories: people; process; and data and technology.


The drive for secondments is the most eye-catching initiative in the ‘people’ section of the strategy. It called on government to “explore seconding senior civil service leaders to industry to allow them to witness the benefits of a culture of experimentation and empowering them to adopt these practices when they return to government”. Traffic will also move in the opposite direction, with the government seeking to “bring people in from the tech industry to help government identify the best opportunities for using emerging technologies”.

This part of the strategy also pledges to use facilities such as the GDS Academy and government’s Data Science Partnership to increase the overall data literacy of civil servants. The government also wishes to “establish a pipeline of digital talent to all levels of the civil service” by doubling the number of digital, data and technology apprenticeships recruited centrally, while also helping senior managers to better take advantage of technology innovation.

The ‘process’ segment of the strategy points to progress in the recent creation of government’s £650m Spark marketplace – a dynamic purchasing system covering 64 types of technology across eight different areas: the internet of things; AI and automation; simulated and enhanced environments; engineering and materials science; data; wearable technology; transport; and security – to improve tech take up.

There will be other tweaks to buying processes, including increased use of “challenge-based procurement methods” – such as the GovTech Catalyst programme, where public-sector entities put forward their challenges and invite proposed solutions

For government entities planning digital projects, there will be changes to the process of creating business cases, with the intention of reducing the need for “a high degree of upfront certainty in terms of the eventual costs and benefits of a project”.

The data and technology section centres on the plan to “develop a detailed cross-government view of the scale of the challenge of legacy technology, put in place plans to tackle it, and make sure there is continuous improvement in our technology estate”.

The strategy added: “Legacy technology and infrastructure will always exist and new will always become old. We need to proactively manage legacy systems so that they do not become urgent issues. We can do this through continuous improvement by learning while systems are being used, and by continuous maintenance, staying ahead of threats and actively managing risks. We must understand more about what our legacy looks like and where it is, so we can build a roadmap for the future.”

Elsewhere in the data and tech section, the document revealed that government will also work to update its standards and guidance for technology, while ensuring innovation is aligned to the upcoming National Data Strategy being put together by DCMS.

Cabinet Office minister for implementation Oliver Dowden began his foreword to the strategy by noting that “the age of the internet is the age of opportunity”.

“Citizens don’t have an option when it comes to interacting with government. We provide services which no one else can,” he said. “It is the duty of a government to serve, and it’s in everyone’s interests that government serves with excellence. For me, excellence relies on innovation and the judicious implementation of new technologies.”

Dowden added: “I believe we can do this. Our foundations are strong. The work we’ve done over the past few years, underpinned by our user first philosophy, has made the UK’s public services some of the most digitally advanced in the world.”

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