Last week, the Government published its long-awaited Government Transformation Strategy, setting out the next steps in using digital and service redesign to improve the way Government works.
Ever since the 2015 Spending Review’s commitment of £1.8 billion in resources for digital transformation, and £450 million to the Government Digital Service in particular, many have wondered exactly what the money was going to go on. As Ben Gummer, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, argues in his introduction, in the past as a bureaucratic natural monopoly the Government has been slow to take advantage of “the transformative power of digital technology.” Technology offers the potential to create a much more flexible, efficient, and effective public sector.
Overall, the strategy sets the right vision, looking simultaneously to transform citizen-facing services, departmental organisation, and the Government backend.
Fundamentally, as the title of the report itself acknowledges, digital transformation will increasingly not have to affect just the code base, but the design of services and policy itself — the business model of Government. In many cases, central Government will not be providing a service directly itself, but instead acting as the infrastructure and platform to local government and third parties, both commercial and charitable. There are sensible, if familiar, suggestions to boost the urgently needed additional supply of digital skills, to continue extending APIs, and to appoint a new Chief Data Officer and Data Advisory Board.
However, I think it is fair to say — as the document itself acknowledges — that this is all very much a beginning, not an end. The Strategy only runs through to 2020-21, when the true work of digital transformation is likely to take a decade. By itself, this strategy does little to change the internal incentives and culture within a risk averse and overly territorial Whitehall. Technological and organisational change will not happen automatically.
After the Government’s previous record of delays and cost overruns, with projects like Universal Credit and the NHS database, it is probably better to under promise and over deliver. Moreover, in many cases, the best way to improve services is not through a top-down plan or strategy, but a much more agile, flexible, and iterative approach. If they are to truly take advantage of their digital app-like origins, services like the digital tax account should be evolving every month or week — far faster than the traditional policy process can cope with. As GDS’ co-founder, Mike Bracken, used to say, the real strategy is delivery.
Nevertheless, to meet the vision of Gummer’s promised revolution in the way we deliver public services, and “transforming the relationship between the citizen and the state” — to, in a word, disrupt the state — we will have to be prepared to go much further than this in the 2020s, and ensure that incumbents don’t block any change. Starting to lay the groundwork for that needs to happen now.
This matters not because of wanting a cool gadget or being star struck by Silicon Valley, but because digital technology is one of the most powerful tools we have to address the looming sustainability crisis in public spending.
Nowhere will this be more important than in the NHS, whose spending has already more than doubled in real terms over the last twenty years. If today’s cost pressures don’t improve, the OBR estimates total spending on the NHS could easily reach 18.5% of GDP by the mid-2060s. While many people assume that this is largely the result on an ageing population, the reality is that this a much smaller factor than continuing underperformance in public-sector productivity.
The good news is that new tools like telemedicine, machine-learning triage of diagnosis, constant data from wearables, and patient-controlled medicine offer the potential for revolutionary improvements in both cost and quality. This will not happen, however, if the public sector does not do better at the fundamentals: digitalising its basic operations , concentrating more on outputs than inputs, and opening up its structures to disruption and innovation.
While yesterday’s paper is a good start, there is still much further to go.
While Ben Gummer has talked about a citizen-focused state, where the public no longer feel “the servants of the state”, the current vision of digital often seems driven more by the needs and politics of Whitehall departments than the end user. By merging together 312 public sector organisations and 685 website domains into a single URL, Gov.uk was widely acclaimed as a forward-looking example of what digital government should look like. Five years after its launch, however, it does not seem to have evolved — still trapped in a static web paradigm at least a decade out of data, in a world where web services are increasingly expected to be smart, mobile first, and customised to the user. Too many services and pieces of data are hidden away, and, ideological aversions to closed platforms aside, it is growing increasingly strange that there is still no app for iOS or Android.
With many of the easy efficiency savings now gone, digital transformation will be increasingly important to drive further efficiencies in future, and achieve the £18 to £23 billion in savings the Government has promised by the end of the parliament. This is unlikely to happen, however, without constant attention and pressure from the top — and, at the moment, efficiency numbers remain opaque, out of date, and basically ignored in Budgets, the OBR’s forecasts, and the wider political discussion. While the Government’s Single Departmental Plans were a good idea for increasing transparent, long-term policy design, at the moment they remain unfocused with most of the important detail hidden away from the public. This is not a recipe for sensible, joined-up policy making.
Digital technology is not just about efficiency, however, but increasingly choice, flexibility, and ultimately user control. Today’s strategy rightly stresses the need for maintaining public trust in the security and privacy of their data, but with the best will in the world, distant new bureaucratic structures, while a good idea, are unlikely to reassure the public fully. To do this, we need to be much more transparent about who can see what data, and wherever possible keeping the user in control. Moreover, as the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor has suggested, we ought to be looking seriously at how we can take advantage of technological solutions such as blockchain to improve security.
Finally, there is always a danger in looking at technology that it will create change by itself, when the real power comes from the combination of technology and new, often disruptive business models. Central government does not have to create everything by itself. At the moment, it is still too hard for innovative new businesses, charities, or local governments to run their own experiments, trial a new service, or integrate with central government services like the digital tax account. If we want to see a public sector that can match the innovation or productivity of the private sector, ultimately we will have to tackle and open up the ‘natural monopoly’ of the state identified by Gummer. Users should be in control, not the internal politics of any particular Department.
Encouragingly, the Government’s strategy ends with an explicit look at the options for a transformed government beyond 2020, and the potential from machine learning, biometrics and health data, joined-up services at a devolved level, and the Internet of Things. It commits to starting serious thinking about how to prepare for all this — and, if necessary, to update the current plan to move faster. That is definitively the right focus: while you shouldn’t run before you can walk, in the long term this is likely where the real change is likely to come.
Over the next few months, Policy Exchange will be looking in much more detail at exactly what the opportunities and barriers are regarding the Future of Government — and what today we need to do to start getting ready.