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Government digital transformation trends 2021

Our predictions for the central government digital transformation agenda this year

If the coronavirus pandemic has shown us anything, it is the importance of digital technologies in improving the provision and delivery of services in the public sector, making a real difference to peoples' lives.

In simple terms, digital transformation puts the infrastructure, culture and products in place to provide services more quickly and efficiently.

So, what do we expect to see when it comes to digital transformation across central government in 2021? Here are our 10 key trends.

1) Bringing digital voices to policy making

As anyone familiar with the public sector knows, the work of government departments can broadly be split into two fields: policy – involving consultation with ministers and formulating legislation; and delivery – where the tools are built to put this into action. Historically, these steps have tended to be approached separately, with technical decisions made only after policy has been fully formed.

Yet by bringing delivery teams in at an earlier stage, departments can use their expertise to inform policy decisions, refining and improving digital solutions. This is a much more collaborative, two-way process, and something we have experienced directly with our work at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) on the Green Homes Grant. The Department for Education has also seen great success getting policy and digital delivery teams to work together. We expect to see a greater shift towards this way of thinking in 2021.

2) Growth in RPA and Intelligent Automation

As Foundry4 co-MD for Automation, David Biden, notes, 2020 was a good year for the organic growth of automation in central government, with a number of institutions kicking off pilot projects with the technology. Those who have experienced the benefits of automation first hand will look to scale up their solutions across multiple teams and departments in 2021, furthering their journey towards a real culture of automation in their organisation and automated end-to-end services.

That said, at a macro level we are still in the education phase of this technology, with more understanding needed about its potential, possible use cases, and where it should (and shouldn't) be applied. The pandemic will again speed up these learnings this year, as departments are asked to do more with the same resources and a fresh lockdown forces face-to-face services to close, leading to greater volumes of digital interactions. Additionally, the Automation Marketplace framework, released last year, will make it easier for government to buy automation services.

3) An overhaul of how data is managed, processed and used

Covid-19 threw the need for accurate data into sharp focus – as well as the public sector's general struggle to make data easily accessible, shareable and to ultimately benefit from its full value. Government's mission to make the most of data is expressed in the National Data Strategy, which 'looks at how we can leverage existing UK strengths to boost the better use of data across businesses, government, civil society and individuals' and feeds into a wider Digital Strategy.

Interestingly, the Data Strategy framework document specifically cites the impact of the pandemic in changing attitudes around data, signalling the need to 'move away from a culture of risk aversion towards a joined-up approach, where the presumption is that, with appropriate safeguards, data should be shared to drive better outcomes.'

To this end, five missions of the Data Strategy (and a focus for government activity in this field over the next few years) are:

  • Unlocking the value of data across the economy.
  • Securing a pro-growth and trusted data regime.
  • Transforming government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services.
  • Ensuring the security and resilience of the infrastructure on which data relies.
  • Championing the international flow of data.

The creation of a Data Standards Authority is an important piece in the puzzle for this work and we look forward to seeing what is achieved this year.

4) Improving citizen experiences through digital technologies

Related to more cohesive and open attitudes around data are the improved services they lead to. The public sector response to the coronavirus in 2020 set a precedent for effective digital services, released quickly to meet citizen needs. As Foundry4's MD Public Sector, Natalie Taylor, remarks:

GOV.UK was exemplary in this regard with its ability to respond to regular government announcements and changes to covid-19 restrictions and guidance. By working with agile, expert teams for example, the Government Digital Service (GDS) released the GOV.UK/Coronavirus landing page in less than 5 days, which went one to receive 18 million page views in its first week.

Growing citizen expectations around public sector digital experiences will drive more of this kind of work in 2021, seeing the creation of a broader range of digital tools to meet our needs. At Foundry4 for example, we'll be working with the Department for Education on its Teacher Services platform, a suite of digital tools helping schools and teachers with recruitment, managing staff and training.

5) Targeting online harms

With the growing scope and influence of the digital sphere on our lives, there is increasing awareness of the need to protect people from online harms. Regulation around this issue will be a hot topic in 2021, providing a significant challenge for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Ofcom.

Safeguarding against online harm is a complex issue as it must of course be balanced against freedom of expression. The Government response to the Online Harms Whitepaper acknowledges that online freedoms must be respected, with upcoming legislation intended to 'protect users’ rights online, including freedom of expression and the need to maintain a vibrant and diverse public square.' Indeed, the aim of this work is to require companies 'to explicitly state what content and behaviour is acceptable on their sites and then for platforms to enforce this consistently.' This clearly targets content publishers and social media sites.

6) Championing diversity

It is the stated desire of public sector institutions to have diversity in their teams and the companies they contract from, with the direct recognition that this makes people and projects more likely to succeed.

More than a theoretical intention, this is demonstrated in the way government procures services. Every tender in the digital marketplace has a cultural fit that companies must respond to, demonstrating their policies and initiatives around Diversity & Inclusion. This will continue to be an important factor in public sector digital procurement this year.

7) Supporting the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) agenda

Similarly, there will be continued appreciation of the value of ESG principles in public sector work. In 2019, the UK passed legislation to target net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, with acknowledgement that 'policies across all areas of government interact to influence the transition of the whole economy' towards this aim. As with the Diversity and Inclusion agenda, ESG factors also feature in government procurement, and we find growing familiarity with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals across the public sector.

This year, it will be interesting to see how these metrics are reported – will emissions savings from home working throughout coronavirus be communicated to the public, for example? We may increasingly see government departments being asked to report on their sustainability and ESG initiatives, and also passing on this responsibility to their suppliers.

8) Growing the capacity to respond to urgent digital work

Under the looming shadow of the UK's exit from the EU, in 2019 the Government Digital Service set up a new team – Expert Services – to provide digital expertise to government departments to deal with their urgent needs. Part of this initiative was the creation of a framework for the provision of these services, which helped GDS to supply urgent digital capability.

As part of the covid-19 response in 2020, this framework was extended. As Natalie Taylor notes, it gives departments a quicker route to market for their digital products, as well as the ability for GDS to oversee work happening across the government. We expect to see a continuation of this in 2021, with the coordination role played by GDS offering reassurance that digital work can be done quickly, with the right approach, and in a way that offers value for the taxpayer.

9) Digital accessibility

Government is ahead of the curve when it comes to making sure its digital services are accessible to all, particularly compared to the private sector. It is a legal requirement for all public sector websites to now conform to accessibility standards, and mobile sites must all be made accessible by 23rd June 2021. The GOV.UK Accessibility team will continue to work to make the site's half a million web pages more accessible this year, leading the way for the public sector and the entire digital industry as a whole.

10) Cloud migration continues

Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure continue to dominate in supplying cloud computing to both the government and enterprise. As Foundry4's MD for Cloud and Data, Jon Holt, says, both stood up well to changes in working patterns as covid-19 took hold, meeting unprecedented demand for remote working and accelerating the shift to the cloud which has been official government policy since 2013. Indeed, most government departments are now cloud first - at least in principle. Nevertheless, their approach remains fairly cautious, as they carefully assess priorities when moving away from legacy data centres. We expect this to continue this year.

In spite of the dominance of AWS and Azure, Google Cloud Platform is quickly becoming a legitimate challenger to infrastructure and application builds in government, especially when machine learning and geo services need integrating. This throws light on the continuing debate over the choice to use single or multiple cloud suppliers - with pros and cons on both sides for institutions to consider.

Finally, cost management is still a challenge for any organisation using cloud computing at enterprise scale. Government must therefore continue to focus on developing in-house skills in cloud in 2021, which in turn will ensure that the management of these services will improve. That said, keeping up with the pace of change at AWS, Google and Azure is no mean feat, so large organisations will continue to require support from external specialists to ensure they procure and manage their cloud needs in the best possible way.

Let's get to work

So there you have it - the 10 key trends for digital transformation in government for 2021 as identified by our experts. It's a varied and complex set of goals, which won't be easy to achieve. But it is encouraging to see the ambition of government institutions in working towards these aims.

It demonstrates a real cultural shift towards the adoption of advanced technologies and modern, more flexible ways of working by the public sector. As ever, this is largely driven by talented groups of individuals who want to make a positive difference to our lives, particularly as we face another challenging year ahead.

Contributors

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Sarah Finch
Research and Insights Manager
Foundry4

Sarah is renowned for her ability to communicate complex concepts with clarity. She plays a central role in managing the insights programme at Foundry4.

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David Biden
Managing Director, Intelligent Automation
Foundry4

David is passionate about helping organisations apply modern technologies to their business, enabling complex organisations to unlock their potential with RPA.

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Natalie Taylor
Managing Director, Public Sector
Foundry4

Natalie has fifteen years experience in Digital Transformation, including key roles in the transformation of UK government, NHS.UK, GDS, and london.gov.uk.

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