A more modest digital strategy

After months of delay, and concerns of stalled progress, the Government Digital Service (GDS) published its long-awaited Transformation Strategy last week.

Like the proverbial curate’s egg, the strategy is likely to be welcomed as ‘good in parts’ by many in tech. However, those looking for a faster and more ambitious approach to improving public services may see it as a missed opportunity.

Building on progress

On the plus side, there will be a new focus on the end-to-end transformation of government. Recent years have seen departments digitise many services like registering to vote or taxing a vehicle. To build on this, key back office functions, and even the IT civil servants use day to day, will also receive attention.

The intention is to drive transformation further and deeper, to not only “create a better and more coherent experience” for citizens but also a more “open, digitally enabled” culture of “policy-making and service delivery”. And because many lack the skills, means or inclination to use the web, citizens will also be able to interact with government using a wider variety of channels, including face-to-face and the phone. This will be welcomed by inclusion advocates and suppliers of multichannel solutions alike.

The Government will also continue to focus on boosting skills and making better use of data to drive transformation. GDS will work with the Office for National Statistics and Government Office for Science to build a cross-government data science capability, and there will also be more general training on data and data literacy for civil servants in non-technical roles. And on data specifically, there will be more opening up of data sets, creating APIs to facilitate data sharing within the public sector and beyond, using powers in the Digital Economy Bill to enable more data sharing.

A less expansive GDS

Overall the Transformation Strategy sets out a more modest and less expansive vision for GDS. If GDS previously saw its role as mandating and directing change from the centre – which often led to friction with departments – the emphasis going forward will be supporting and encouraging departments’ digital transformation efforts, breaking down silos where helpful, and coordinating activity to avoid duplication.

This can be seen in GDS’ new approach to common platforms. Although building them will still be a focus, individual departments will now drive this forward. Apart from GOV.UK (for publishing), the only platforms GDS will be responsible for will be Verify (for ID assurance, which has new targets to get to 25 million users by 2020 and be adopted by the private sector); Pay; and Notify – far more modest than the 20 platforms GDS’ first executive director Mike Bracken said he thought were needed.

Instead, different departments with expertise, skills and needs in key areas will be encouraged to lead on developing cross-cutting “business capabilities”, with GDS supporting and encouraging re-use of these by other parts of government. The strategy mentions a common printing function developed by DVLA, and DWP leading on an outbound payments tool, as examples of this, but little on how these activities will be coordinated.

A more realistic approach?

GDS’ leaders will hope this represents a practical and realistic plan to transform government from the ground up, as opposed to top down. In this regard the emphasis on departmental autonomy looks to be a smart move for working with, and not against, established civil service structures and securing the widest possible buy-in across Whitehall.

This should also create interesting opportunities for suppliers to show thought leadership and add value by explaining how they can not only deliver to a specific departmental brief, but also support wider change across the public sector.

The true test will be whether substantive and coherent transformation takes place across the whole of the public sector, and whether departments begin collaborating without GDS playing a strong, central coordinating function.

Burhan in our Public Affairs team 

  • Digital marketing (also known as data-driven marketing) is an umbrella term for the marketing of products or services using digital technologies, mainly on the Internet, but also including mobile phones, display advertising, and any other digital medium.