Key focus areas for government digital transformation
The past eighteen months have been hugely challenging for the government’s digital teams.
First we were dealing with EU Exit - deal, or no deal; hard Brexit, or soft Brexit; moving deadlines and high urgency. Teams were quickly spun up to try to put in place as many systems, services and processes as possible to manage UK government business in the new world of life outside the EU.
With so much uncertainty and constantly shifting deadlines, there was plenty of opportunity to be agile and focus on minimum viable products.
Then came covid
During this time I worked with BEIS, DExEU and the Cabinet Office on various EU Exit preparedness projects and witnessed the tenacity and dedication of my Civil Service colleagues working very hard under pressure, which was often extremely demanding and directed from the very top. Suppliers and civil servants rallied together, creating high performing, multi-disciplinary teams who had to be focused on priorities and bold with their senior sponsors, pushing back when necessary to protect the team and ensure that user needs remained a priority.
We worked hard, but there was still so much work to be done to get us ready for the EU Exit when we were struck by covid-19. Suddenly teams across government, and in the NHS and Education in particular, were tackling a pandemic that they absolutely weren’t prepared for.
The one thing that these digital teams had on their side was the ability to work from pretty much anywhere. Thanks to the wide adoption of tools like Slack, G-Suite and GitHub over the past few years, most digital teams do the bulk of their work online and in the cloud, allowing them to easily adapt to working from home.
Unfortunately, the rest of government was not quite so au fait with these ways of working, especially when it came to those in more secure environments. As a result there was quite a lot of abrupt adoption of MS Teams and Zoom to facilitate remote working, over quite a painful and awkward few months.
It's working, differently
The struggle to adapt to remote working no doubt created inefficiencies, but at least it forced some of the more traditional teams in government to work in a more modern way, that would’ve taken a lot longer otherwise. The remote working model also proved to those people who believed very much in presenteeism that they can actually trust their people to work from home and in fact, that this often results in teams being more productive. This was a real benefit to the public sector over the past twelve months - the ability to get things done far more quickly.
This is clearly something we would like to see continue, but as those of us in the public sector know, it's not always that simple. It’s easy to deliver a digital product, but embedding digital ways of working and culture requires the whole organisation to work differently. It’s so often finance, procurement or governance which holds us back, but in the middle of a global pandemic, decisions are made quickly and barriers are removed so that teams can get on and deliver as quickly as possible.
Now this obviously can have drawbacks too, as we’ve seen from some of the lack of transparency and fair competition in procurement, but it also proves that the Civil Service can do great things when the red tape and bureaucracy is taken away.
Learning the lessons, and looking ahead
So how can the lessons of the past few months direct us to focus on the right things as we enter into this new financial year?
In our new report, Transforming Government: Six key digital transformation recommendations for a modern government, we set out the major focus areas for central government as it takes on economic recovery after covid-19, and attempts to seize the evolving benefits heralded by digital technology.
In my opinion, the most important and exciting areas brought to light in this report are cloud, data and harms.
Accelerating cloud adoption
It’s not a sexy priority, but we still have so much legacy technology in government that we really must address. Cloud is the key enabler for this.
Departments just need to get this done as soon as possible, so that we have services which can adapt and flex for the future. This is one of the key themes in our report, and - although it sounds obvious and it’s not new - it’s still an area where the government is massively behind and therefore still very inefficient.
A more collaborative approach to data
Similarly, data is another priority which we’ve had ambitions to fix in government for more than ten years, and yet we still seem to be facing the same challenges.
Data standards must be adopted across government so that we can use it intelligently to understand and support UK citizens. This is a no brainer and yet it is still very far from being solved.
Once again the pandemic has shown that when we do collaborate on data sharing, it can be very powerful and effective. The Data Standards Authority (DSA) must capitalise on what has been proven in the last year and use this momentum to change the culture of managing and sharing data across departments.
Tackling online harms
Finally, and the area of this report which excites me the most, is the UK government’s ambitions to regulate online harms. I first got involved in this agenda when working with Ofcom last year, in their preparation to become the online harms regulator, and it's something that I am personally and professionally highly invested in. It is a fascinating and complex challenge, one which could really help to tackle an incredibly damaging part of how society currently operates.
There is a great opportunity to combat this through regulation, but this challenge is so big and so damaging that the only way to really make headway is going to be through partnership working between the regulator, government, the platforms and the safety tech industry to address online harms together. The early work so far suggests that a collaborative approach to solving these problems is something that all parties are on board with and I for one am very compelled to be part of the solution.
It's been a whirlwind time, but as we take stock of recent events - including both Brexit and covid-19 - we can really begin to see what we did well, along with those areas we still need to work on.
Our report goes into these themes in detail, shedding light on the current state of digital transformation in government, and recommendations for the future. It's a must-read for anyone seeking to understand - and improve - the use of digital technologies and modern ways of working in government. Ultimately, that's how the public sector will have the biggest impact on the people it serves, both now and in the years to come.
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Managing Director, Public Sector
Natalie has fifteen years experience in Digital Transformation, including key roles in the transformation of UK government, NHS.UK, GDS, and london.gov.uk.