Whitehall split over impact of digital on departmental structures

Civil Service World survey finds civil servants undecided over whether departments still make sense as services move online

By Sarah Aston

01 Jun 2015

Whitehall officials are split over whether departments are still relevant in a digital age, according to Civil Service World research.

Earlier this year, Government Digital Service director Mike Bracken – who has led many of the government’s digital reforms – suggested a major shake-up of Whitehall structures could be needed as government services move online.

Speaking at an event in February, Bracken said that while the current structure benefited ministers, moves toward digital government had the potential to "erode much of the departmentalism that goes on".

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“Logical groupings [make sense] to ministers [because that’s how] we run parliament," he added. "We need that. But in terms of delivery of service in a digital age, departments and structures don’t often make that much sense." 

Civil Service World asked 929 officials whether they believed that departmental structures were becoming less relevant as public services moved online.

Respondents were split almost evenly between those who felt traditional structures were becoming less relevant – 35.7% – and those who believed departments were still necessary – 39%. The remaining respondents said they were undecided or did not know.

One official from the Department for Work and Pensions said the government’s "digital-by-default" agenda had highlighted the effectiveness of cross-departmental working.
“Gov.UK has shown that departments can share same digital space and still provide excellent customer service,” said one official from the Department for Work and Pensions.
Another official from the department added: “The priority should be in delivering meaningful service sets to customers rather than departmental branding.”

Others, however, were less convinced about the need to change current Whitehall structures.

“Departments have evolved for very good reasons, and there can be many unforeseen problems if you ignore the differences,” warned one official from the Department of Health. 

Another civil servant working in HM Revenue & Customs suggested that while there may be some generic information that could be shared across government, departments such as HMRC needed to remain distinct organisations.

“A level of expertise is required for much of the casework carried out by HMRC," they said. "This knowledge and skills base is applied within the departmental structure and is not typically generic."

Another official from the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs agreed, saying that while some in Whitehall viewed online service delivery as the "answer to all ills", departmental expertise remained vital.

“It may be that we can reduce the number of staff undertaking manual data processing tasks, but those that need to answer policy questions or deal with the complex areas that government departments work in will still be needed.”

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