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Government digital strategy lacks specifics for success

The Government’s new transformation strategy provides a substantial description of how digital technology can improve services and save money, but lacks specific commitments. To succeed, Daniel Thornton says it needs momentum and support from Theresa May and Philip Hammond.

The Government’s new transformation strategy provides a substantial description of how digital technology can improve services and save money, but lacks specific commitments. To succeed, Daniel Thornton says it needs momentum and support from Theresa May and Philip Hammond.

Minister for the Cabinet Office Ben Gummer launched the long-awaited Government Transformation Strategy yesterday. The strategy aims to exploit the potential of digital technology to change the way government works, how it organises itself and how it serves citizens.

Although Gummer described the man behind the strategy – the head of the Government Digital Service (GDS), Kevin Cunnington – as the “digital Che Guevara,” the strategy is realistic. It recognises that large-scale transformation is a major challenge, requiring co-ordination across many bodies while maintaining existing services. 

But this strategy has been a long time coming. So, while waiting for it last year, we set five tests to determine if it could succeed:

1. Set a measureable baseline. Score: 0.5

A good strategy can be measured against where things stand now. In this case, government needs to know how many services it currently provides, how many are digital (that meet quality standards), and how many will be transformed by 2020.

But there is no list of central government services. A new and interesting Performance Platform is highlighted in the strategy and “central government services” is one of the potential registers. So, the baseline is not very clear – but this may be a plan to develop one.  

The strategy then commits to transforming 17 services (see below), and sets a small number of targets, such as:

  • Verify should have 25m users by 2020
  • 75% of the responses to the 2021 Census should be online, up from 17% in 2011  
  • passport applications should be 90% fully digital by 2020.  

These all make sense, but to measure success, more services should have targets.

2. Identify clear priorities and trade-offs. Score: 0.5

The strategy’s broad priorities are supported by our research – for example, that the central focus should be the transformation of organisations and processes, and that people and skills need to be developed. It is encouraging to see the strategy’s focus on developing understanding of digital transformation among the leadership of the civil service. Data is also highlighted as a priority, with a list of 44 potential new registers, accompanied by a new Chief Data Officer and advisory body.

But where specifics are mentioned, such as “exiting large, single supplier and multi-year IT contracts”, there is little detail. It is clear that this is a challenging area – for example, HM Revenue & Customs recently extended its contract with Fujitsu to 2018. 

Seventeen services are highlighted that government “will make digitally accessible by 2020,” and these can be interpreted as priorities. Each of these is at very different scales and levels of complexity. The Carer’s Allowance was one of original exemplars, and is already digital. And while the ‘I want to fish’ service will be important for some, it won’t bring down the Government if it fails.

In contrast, ‘Check if someone can work in the UK’ and ‘Come to live or work in the UK’ will be a vital part of Brexit preparations and face uncertain timelines and serious scrutiny. The strategy does not refer to trade-offs between priorities. 

3. Explain how resources will be allocated. Score: 0

The document provides no information on this, including in relation to the £450m which former Chancellor George Osborne announced in 2015. The strategy commits government to “provide radical transparency to citizens about how money is being spent” – but sadly not until 2020. 

4. Explain how digital thinking will be brought in early. Score: 0.5

The strategy notes that there is consensus on the need to bring policymaking and service design closer together. While this is welcome, there is a lack of specifics about what this will mean in practice. 

Commitment from the policy profession and senior policy officials is also required, which we have not yet seen. The strategy tells a sensible story about governance, but a key issue will be whether HM Treasury funds cross-government work that is essential for joining up services for citizens.

5. Clarify roles and responsibilities. Score: 0.5

The strategy provides a reasonable description of the role of GDS. But it is not clear on one of the most controversial areas of its responsibilities, which are spending controls:

“Departments will continue to create forward views of their planned spend on digital and technology which will [be] scrutinised by the Government Digital Service. We will seek to bring earlier engagement on spending plans between departments and GDS, so that support can be provided at the most useful point.”

We will return to the question of central vs departmental responsibilities – at this stage, the strategy has only partially clarified the position.

Overall, the strategy scores 2/5. 

Although the strategy provides a substantial analysis and description, and indeed makes a credible case for transformation, government produces a lot of strategies. Some of them actually do have a lasting impact, but those that don’t tend to be high on aspiration and low on specifics.

Momentum needs to be maintained and the strategy needs cross-government support at secretary of state level – otherwise this risks ending up on the pile of unrealised government strategies.

In order to succeed, this strategy needs the public support of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor – both of whom continue to remain silent on the issue.

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