Delivering digital transformation: the mixed successes of the Government Digital Service

By Steven McGinty

It’s been a period of change for the Government Digital Service (GDS) since losing influential Executive Director Mike Bracken in 2015. Since then, the service has experienced a string of high profile departures, leading many commentators to suggest that the much-lauded GDS could soon be coming to an end.

However, in the November 2015 Spending Review, then Chancellor George Osborne announced that the GDS would receive an extra £450 million over four years – a significant increase on their previous budget of £58 million per year.

Chancellor Osborne highlighted that these additional funds would help fuel a “digital revolution” in central government, and in particular create one of the most digitally advanced tax administrations in the world.

But has new funding – and possibly the public show of support – led to a digital revolution?

In the beginning….

In 2011, the GDS was formed to implement the ‘digital by default’ strategy – a key proposal of UK Digital Champion (and founder of lastminute.com) Martha Lane Fox’s report into the delivery of online public services.

The GDS’s first major project, GOV.UK, has in many ways proved to be a success. Launched in 2012, the publishing platform brought together over 300 government agencies and arm’s length bodies’ websites within 15 months. Replacing DirectGov and Business Link alone has saved more than £60m a year. Early testing showed GOV.UK was simpler for users, with 61% completing tasks on the new Business Link section; compared to 46% on the old website.

GOV.UK has also been viewed as an example of best practice, with GDS team members supporting countries such as New Zealand with their own digital government efforts.

However, it’s not been entirely without its controversies. In October 2016, the Welsh language commissioner accused the UK government of weakening Welsh language services, explaining that provision on the site had “deteriorated astonishingly” since the introduction of GOV.UK. A recent GDS blog article has also identified challenges in making content accessible for users. For example, 73% of the content on GOV.UK is looked at by fewer than 10 people per month.

Government as a platform

A major theme of the GDS’s work has been the introduction of a platform approach to digital government – principles proposed by technology guru Tim O’Reilly. In 2015, Mike Bracken set out a new vision for digital government, highlighting the need to create:

“A common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services.”

GOV.UK is one such service.

But the concept has gone on to inspire new services such as GOV.UK Verify – a platform which enables citizens to prove who they are when using government services. This common service was a world first and is being used by organisations such as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Additionally, GOV.UK Notify – a service which sends text messages, emails or letters – was introduced in January 2016. It helped support the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) transition some of their services to online only, as it provided them with the ability to send thousands of notifications at the one time.

National Audit Office

On 30 March 2017, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report into the government’s track record on digital transformation.

The report concluded that the GDS had an early impact across government, successfully reshaping the government’s approach to technology and transformation. However, Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, also observed that:

“Digital transformation has a mixed track record across government. It has not yet provided a level of change that will allow government to further reduce costs while still meeting people’s needs. To achieve value for money and support transformation across government, GDS needs to be clear about its role and strike a balance between robust assurance and a more consultative approach.”

In particular, the NAO highlights concerns over the GOV.UK Verify programme. The service has proven difficult to adopt for some departments, which has led to the GDS allowing the use of alternate identity services. According to the NAO, this significantly undermines the business case for GOV.UK Verify, and provides a poorer experience for users on government websites.

The Institute for Government

Influential think tank, the Institute for Government (IfG), has recently published two reports on the progress of digital transformation.

In October 2016, the report ‘Making a success of digital government’ estimated that the UK Government could save up to £2 billion by 2020 – through efficiency savings – by creating better digital services. Major digital transformation successes were also highlighted, including the online registration to vote by 1.3 million people by May 2016, and the introduction of a new digital road tax system (removing the need for paper disks).

In terms of the GDS, the IfG expressed similar views to the NAO:

“We found that GDS has played an important role in bringing new digital capability into government. But, in the absence of a new digital strategy, its role is unclear. GDS needs to re-equip itself to support a government that now has rapidly developing digital capability, and high ambitions for change.”

In February 2017, the government published a new digital transformation strategy, including attempting to clarify the ‘evolving’ role of the GDS.

However, this hasn’t stopped the IfG making several new recommendations for the GDS in their latest digital government report. These include:

  • clarifying the GDS standards and distinguishing between standards and guidance;
  • re-examining the role of the Government Gateway – an identity assurance platform – and of GOV.UK Verify;
  • taking a more active role in the digital services market, such as designing the Digital Marketplace for different users; and
  • creating a store for Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to encourage their use throughout the public sector.

Final thoughts

The GDS has played a vital role in creating a new vision for digital government. However, evidence has suggested that over recent years the pace of change has slowed, with key initiatives such as GOV.UK Verify facing a variety of challenges.

In the coming years, it’s likely that the Brexit negotiations will be top priority for politicians and many government departments. It will be important that the GDS works with these departments and looks to prioritise services that are vital for managing the Brexit process.


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Slow by default: achieving digital transformation in the complex world of local government

City Hall, London

By Steven McGinty

Bringing local government into the 21st century is fraught with well documented challenges. In 2015, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) carried out a survey into local government leaders’ views on digital transformation. The research identified six key barriers to digital adoption:

  • Legacy systems and ICT infrastructure
  • Lack of development funds
  • Unwillingness to change / non-cooperation of colleagues
  • Lack of in-house digital skills
  • Culturally uncomfortable for the organisation
  • Supplier inflexibility

However, there have been signs we are heading in the right direction. LocalGov Digital, a network of digital practitioners in local government, published a common approach for delivering services – an issue we discussed on our blog in June. Their hope is that this new standard (known as the Local Government Digital Service Standard) will support the sharing of good practice and lead to better public services.

In addition, many councils are involved in pilot projects and introducing new services.  For example, Cambridge City Council have launched Cambridgeshire Insight, a shared research knowledge base which allows over 20 public and third sector organisations to publish their data and make it freely available. We have also seen 18 councils coming together to collaborate on a project which aims to keep electoral registers up-to-date, potentially saving £20 million a year.

Over the past year, commentators have provided their views on what’s holding back digital transformation in local government. Below we’ve highlighted some of these.

Digital inclusion

At a TechUK event in November, Labour councillor for Harrow Council, Niraj Dattani, argued that councils should ‘aim for digital first and think about digital exclusion later’.

He suggested that if local government focused too much on the 15% of people who can’t access services, then, ultimately, nobody will have access to better services. In his view:

It’s better to serve the 85% than serve nobody at all

Theo Blackwell, Labour councillor for Camden Council, supported this view, and although he acknowledges there are legitimate digital exclusion concerns, he argued this should not limit innovation. In his blog article, ‘Scaling digital change for better public services — reflections on UK local government digital strategies’,  Mr Blackwell also expresses his fear that council leaders are setting the pace of digital transformation by their digital inclusion priorities.

However, it’s likely that organisations who advocate greater digital inclusion, (such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) – who have challenged local authorities to improve accessibility), would disagree with this approach.

Interestingly, Mr Dattani emphasises that digital exclusion cannot be solved by one service or one local council, but requires cross-government collaboration.

Local leadership

Stephen Curtis, head of The Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing, has suggested that public sector leaders are ‘holding back digital revolution’. He explained that with digital transformation, technology is less important than the vision and leadership provided by senior officials. Encouraging data sharing across organisations, empowering employees, and importantly, investing in digital services, are just some of the key ingredients.

Similarly, a council chief executive has suggested that the public sector lacks people with the necessary skills to lead digital transformation. He highlighted that in many cases, anything to do with digital is given to the head of IT. As such, digital projects are often poorly planned and systems which are not fit for purpose are being digitised, when a radical rethink of a whole service is needed.

National leadership

In the March 2015 Budget, former Chancellor George Osborne confirmed that there would be a role for the Government Digital Service (GDS) in helping local government achieve their digital transformation ambitions (the success of which is up for debate). However, in Philip Hammond’s most recent Autumn Statement, there was no mention of local government.

In a recent blog article, Theo Blackwell, argues that this omission should be corrected in the upcoming Government Digital Transformation Strategy and the 2017 Budget. In his view, central government, including the GDS, have an important role to play in supporting local government. He also highlights that a coherent digital strategy has not been included in any of the agreed devolution deals.

Fear over job losses

One of the major challenges highlighted for implementing artificial intelligence (AI) is the fear over a reduction in jobs.  However, Richard Sargeant, Director of ASI Data Science, suggests this isn’t necessarily the case. In his experience, AI will usually be used for tasks that are repetitive and that most staff members don’t enjoy. Staff can then be re-targeted to areas of work best suited to people, such as human interaction, making complex decisions or thinking creatively.

Security concerns

High profile data breaches – such as the 13,000 email addresses stolen from Edinburgh City Council’s database in 2015 – are one of the main concerns for local government.

However, Martyn Wallace, new chief digital officer for 28 of Scotland’s local councils, argues that local authorities need to move away from their negative thinking on this issue. Although he acknowledges the potential harm which could come from a data breach, he emphasises the need to focus on the facts and to take an ‘appropriate view’. For him, if you have appropriate security measures, then there is no reason why security fears should limit your digital progress.

Final thoughts

Although digital change requires overcoming a variety of challenges, such as those highlighted here, the opportunities they present have the potential to create efficiencies and provide better public services. Achieving digital transformation won’t be easy, but, by building partnerships with central government and the private sector, local councils are more likely to make a success of it.

Despite the prospect of Brexit and ongoing budgetary pressures, investing in digital transformation is not an option for local government, but a necessity.


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Government as a Platform: a new way of thinking about digital transformation

Multi-coloured blocks on the table, with a green dinosaur

By Steven McGinty

The term ‘Government as a Platform’ (GaaP) was coined by Tim O’Reilly, a technology entrepreneur and advocate.

The Government Digital Service (GDS), the body responsible for UK Government digital transformation, has started to introduce ‘platform thinking’ to government services. However, according to a survey carried out in February, three-quarters of civil servants hadn’t heard of or didn’t understand ‘Government as a Platform’. This may be concerning for government, whose efficiency programme greatly relies on successful digital transformation.

On the blog today, I’m going to reflect on the concept of ‘Government as a Platform’, as well as outlining its adoption in the UK.

The ‘gubbins’ of government

Mark Foden, an organisational change strategist, explains the platform-based view of government in a simple (and humorous) video.

In his view, government has traditionally been made up of independent departments, providing services such as benefits, pensions, and tax. These services use bespoke technology provided by large technology companies, over long contracts.

However, the platform based-view is different. He illustrates this by splitting a government department into three sections:

  • Levers and dials – the part of the service the user interacts with (e.g. websites and mobile apps)
  • ‘Gubbins’ – in simple terms, it’s the common capabilities (e.g. checking identity) and the bespoke services (e.g. calculating tax) that government services need to function
  • Machinery – the fundamentals of technology (e.g. mainframe computers, storage, and databases)

Foden explains that a key element to platform thinking is the ‘gubbins’ section. Advances in technology now make it possible to untangle these ‘gubbins’ government services, without affecting others. In practice, this means that common capabilities used by government, such as making payments or checking identity can be developed and used across departments. Websites can also be shared to create consistency across government digital services – a sort of ‘brand government’. This approach limits the number of bespoke services developed in ‘silos’ (or within departments).

Additionally, having this separation between common capabilities and bespoke services also presents opportunities to involve a greater number of suppliers.

Potentially, this approach could be worth £35 billion in savings across government.

Organising Government as a Platform

Mark Thompson, senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, suggests three principles to enable Government as a Platform to succeed:

  • gradually moving towards more common capabilities and reducing departmental bespoke services
  • developing common capabilities across the public sector must be a priority for digital transformation
  • optimising the relationship between common capabilities and bespoke services within government departments

The UK approach  

GDS

A widely used definition by the GDS is that digital government should include:

 “a common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services.”

GOV.UK was the first attempt to transform how the UK does government. Launching in 2012, the publishing platform brought together over 300 government agencies and arm’s length bodies’ websites within 15 months. Replacing DirectGov and Business Link alone saved more than £60m a year. Early testing also showed GOV.UK was simpler for users, with 61% completing tasks on the new Business Link section; compared to 46% on the old website.

GOV.UK Verify has also been introduced – an identity assurance platform which allows people to prove who they are when using government services. The common service is the first of its kind and is being used by organisations such as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to build new services.

More recently, GOV.UK Notify, a service which sends text messages, emails or letters, has sent notifications to its first users. GOV.UK Pay also just secured compliance with the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard.

NHS

Although the GDS have taken the lead on platform thinking, the NHS launched NHS Jobs, a shared recruitment service, in 2003. The service has been remarkably successfully, generating over £1 billion in savings.

Mark Thompson suggests this is because of its platform approach. The Department of Health (DoH), working alongside Methods Consulting, convinced over 500 NHS employers to give up their own recruitment services and to make use of this common capability. The website is the biggest single employer recruitment site in Europe, with one unique visit every two seconds. The service has also become a valuable commodity with suppliers willing to provide the service at near cost, and compete on providing innovative services. The creation of this high quality recruitment service has therefore become a spur for innovation – something which is at the heart of Tim O’Reilly’s work on Government as a Platform.

Local government

Adur and Worthing council have recently taken a platform approach to their digital transformation. Paul Brewer, digital lead for the council, notes that it was struggling on several fronts, including IT outages and systems replicating inefficient paper-based processes.

To solve this problem, the council went through a capability mapping exercise. They identified departments which had common functions, such as undertaking case management, taking payments and booking appointments for customers. With this roadmap, they developed a CRM system to manage customer interactions (including social media), and purchased a platform which supports the creation a range of new IT products. The new approach enabled the council’s waste management service to support full mobile and remote working. Within a year, the department saved £20,000 on software and the equivalent of 1.5 staff members.

Interestingly, the council did not built their own platform, on the GDS model. Nor did they purchase an inflexible technology. Instead, they chose a third way by purchasing the building blocks of capability, and controlling where the capability was slotted in.

Final thoughts

The lack of knowledge about Government as a Platform within the civil service is somewhat disheartening. However, the GDS has introduced many new approaches to government and shown practically how they can work. Projects such as GOV.UK and GOV.UK Verify have been well received and countries such as New Zealand have looked towards the UK for their own digital transformation.

In August, the UK was ranked as global leader for e-participation on the United Nations E-Government Survey, ahead of Australia and South Korea.


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Digital Economy Bill – the impact of Brexit

By Steven McGinty

On the 18th March, the Queen’s Speech set out the government’s legislative programme for the year ahead. This included the Digital Economy Bill, a piece of legislation which aims to ensure the UK is a world leader in digital provision.

However, as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said ‘a week is a long time in politics’. The UK has unexpectedly voted to leave the European Union (EU). The Prime Minister has stood down, leaving a leadership contest in the Conservative Party. And many are uncertain about the future direction of the country.

In this article, I’ll outline the Digital Economy Bill, highlight some of the early commentary, as well as comment on the new political landscape the Bill now finds itself in.

Digital Economy Bill

The Digital Economy Bill focuses on five main areas. These include:

Fast broadband

The Bill introduces a ‘Broadband Universal Service Obligation’, providing all citizens and businesses with the legal right to have a fast broadband connection installed (of at least 10Mbps initially). This is similar to the telephone landline obligation which currently exists.

There is also an emphasis on cutting the costs and improving the processes for building broadband infrastructure. However, at this stage, there is very little detail on how this might be achieved, apart from introducing a new Electronic Communication Code and making changes to the planning system.

Consumers

New powers will be given to Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, which will enable them to request data, such as broadband speeds data, which will help consumers in choosing a provider. The Bill also attempts to make it easier for consumers to switch provider and to receive compensation when things go wrong.

Data sharing

Public bodies will be given powers to share information in an effort to combat fraud, which costs the country billions every year. For example, the cost of tax fraud was estimated to be £15 billion in 2011. Other notable measures include encouraging the use of data to provide better public services and identifying and helping people with debts at an earlier stage.

Intellectual property rights

The new Bill recognises that it’s important to support digital industries by addressing the difference in online/offline copyright laws. In addition, the process of registering copyright should be easier and cheaper.

Unsolicited Marketing

Consumers will be given further protection against spam emails and nuisance calls.

Early commentary  

TechUK, industry body for the digital sector, has welcomed the new Bill, highlighting that if implementation is successful, the measures will play an important role in growing the UK’s digital economy. They do, however, note the need for careful consideration when making changes to the planning system and the Electronic Communication Code, alongside stressing the need to ensure changes to copyright law are technically feasible.

Geoff French, chairman of the Enterprise M3 Local Economic Partnership, has also welcomed the advantages the new Bill could bring to business. He highlights that there are still too many urban and rural areas that have low broadband speeds, affecting the growth of the digital economy, as well as the innovation, productivity and competitiveness of the wider economy.

Brendan O’Reilly, Chief Technology Officer at O2 UK, suggests that the planning system needs to be streamlined to allow the expansion of the network. He explains that the process of deploying a mast can take up to three years from start to finish. To emphasis his point, he contrasts the situation in the UK with that in South Korea, where three months to deployment of a mast is considered a long time. And although the new Bill may provide for this change, he highlights the need for collaboration between government and industry, and to think more of ‘UK plc’.

Landowners, however, have been less positive about the new Bill. Under new proposals, landowners would receive ‘compensation’ for masts located on their property; as opposed to the current system where they receive ‘market rate’. As Strutt & Parker telecoms specialist Robert Paul explains, this could mean landowners who used to receive £7,000-£8,000/year, would instead receive £200-£300/year, if classed as compensation. Mr Paul suggests that this could result in landowners taking their case to tribunals, with the result being expensive and time consuming legal challenges to the deployment of masts.

The elephant in the room – Techxit?  

Before the referendum result was announced, Ed Vaizey, UK digital economy minister, stated that there would be a ‘significant economic impact’ if we voted to leave the EU, with uncertainty affecting investment decisions in the UK.

Although it’s too soon to comment on whether this is the case, there has been some notable reaction since the UK voted to leave the EU. Firstly, Ed Vaizey has stated that progressing the Digital Economy Bill will not be delayed as a consequence of the result. However, unconfirmed reports (reported in the media) have suggested that the Bill may have to have its contents altered.

The Economist Intelligence Unit reports that the telecoms industry has been negatively affected by the result, with revenue forecasts being reduced from 29% to 23% by 2020. They highlight, though, that the Digital Economy Bill is still likely to contain regulation that supports increased investment, and that Brexit may even lead to a more favourable investment environment. Yet, the EIU also notes that other broadband targets, such as the elimination of rural ‘not-spots’ may be deemed less important.

At the moment, the reforms in the Digital Economy Bill are still on the agenda. But it’s not clear how future changes will affect its progress. For instance, issues such as the free movement of skilled professionals, the UK’s position in the single market, and the impact on investment for start-ups are all sources of uncertainty.

The Knowledge Exchange will monitor the Bill’s progress as it receives parliamentary scrutiny.


The Digital Economy Bill was introduced into Parliament on 5 July 2016.

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Digital transformation in government: moving towards 100% digital

Mike Bracken, former Executive Director Digital for the UK Government, on a stage with the word 'Onwards' in the background.

Mike Bracken, former Executive Director Digital for the UK Government, speaking about  ‘The digital transformation of the UK Government ”  Image by gdsteam via Creative Commons

By Steven McGinty

On the 1st March, Companies House, the agency responsible for the UK’s register of companies, announced their intention to become a 100% digital organisation by the end of 2018/19. Over 80% of companies already submit their documents digitally, but the agency is keen to move this figure as close to 100% as possible, highlighting the cost savings and improved levels of service.

However, Companies House is not alone in its digital ambitions. ‘Digital by default’, the idea that digital services should be the most convenient option for people, has been a key policy aim of the UK government.

Digital Transformation programme

In January 2013, the government introduced its first significant venture into digital transformation. The programme, which involved the Government Digital Service (GDS) – the agency responsible for digital transformation – and eight government departments, set out to transform 25 major services in 400 days, with the aim of developing services that were simpler, clearer and faster to use.

By the end of the programme, in March 2015, twenty exemplar projects had been completed, including services as varied as enabling people to register to vote, making a claim for the Carer’s Allowance, and booking a prison visit.

“Death of the self-assessment tax return”

In the March 2015 Budget, the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced a major IT project, which he described as “a revolutionary simplification of tax collection”. At the time, 12 million people were completing self-assessment tax forms every year. But by early 2016 the government expected that five million small businesses and the first ten million individuals would have personalised digital tax accounts, bringing together all their tax details. By 2020, it’s expected that over 50 million individuals and small business will benefit from personalised digital tax accounts.

Although the project has generally been praised, Jamie Morrison, private client partner at HW Fisher & Company, has warned that – apart from the most straightforward cases – automation won’t improve the self-assessment experience. Similarly, Mark Abbs, a tax partner at London-based chartered accountant Blick Rothenberg LLP, has suggested that the five-year time frame might be too ‘ambitious’.

Investment in digital transformation

As part of the 2015 November Spending Review, George Osborne provided £1.8 billion over four years to support digital transformation initiatives.  This included supporting the move towards digital tax accounts, mentioned above, and the introduction of a simple payment mechanism for all central government services.

In addition to this funding, UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) – which works with businesses to ensure their success in international markets – received £24 million to simplify their online services and ensure they can interact effectively with other government services.

More surprisingly, the GDS was given a budget of £450 million over four years – an increase on its previous £58 million a year. This news was particularly positive for those connected with the GDS, as there was concern that their budget (and influence) would be greatly reduced.

Challenges of digital transformation

The biggest challenge to the goal of ‘100% digital’ is that not everyone is able to access digital services (and to a lesser degree those who have access but need support). In 2015, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) found that 14% of households in Great Britain had no internet access, with 31% reporting that this was due to a lack of skills. Other factors for lack of access included the cost of technology (14%) and the cost of accessing the internet (12%).

Elizabeth Rust, in a 2014 Guardian article, highlighted that often those who are digitally excluded need to access government services the most. She offered the example of a jobseeker who lost his Jobseeker’s Allowance because he struggled to access the internet to apply for jobs, particularly as limited access was available at his local library.

This highlights the challenge of achieving ‘100% digital’, and is why although HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) are now moving towards digital tax accounts, there will still be an option to complete self-assessment returns in the traditional way.

In the 2016 March Budget, George Osborne also provided £71 million of extra funding to support the digital tax roll-out. These additional resources will be used to extend the opening hours of customer service offices that deal with online enquiries and tax credits.  These improved services should be in place by 2017, enabling greater levels of support for users of digital tax records.

Conclusion

Digital transformation provides a major opportunity for improving government services and reducing costs. It’s not a case however of simply replicating existing customer journeys within an online environment. It requires organisations to put people at the heart of their delivery approach. And in turn, this requires significant internal challenge and change.

The ambition for digital transformation will only succeed if the government invests in digital skills, provides services that encourage people to use them, and supports individuals as they adapt to new digital services.


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Delivering digital differently: how should we provide public services in the future?

 

By Steven McGinty

On April 21st, Socitm (the Society of Information Technology Management) will be having their annual spring conference. This year, the agenda reflects the challenges facing technology leaders, who are under increasing pressure to radically transform services and deliver financial savings.

The event will open with a discussion on how digital technology should be used to provide the public services of the future. In anticipation of this, I thought I’d highlight some of the issues that may be discussed.

Open architecture and platforms

In 2012, the Government Digital Service (GDS), the body responsible for digital transformation in central government, launched GOV.UK. Within 15 months this project brought together over 300 government agency and arm’s length body websites into just one single platform. Similarly, they also introduced GOV.UK Verify, a platform rolled out across a number of departments, which allows citizens to prove who they are when using government services.

These platforms exemplify the UK Government’s new ambition for public services, i.e. that services should be simple, user-centric, and built on ‘a common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technologies, and processes’. In theory, this should provide users with a seamless experience as they move between different government services. This approach has been referred to as ‘Government as a Platform’.

We have also seen examples of this approach adopted in local authorities. For instance, Manchester City Council’s award winning website clearly follows some of the GDS’ design principles.

Collaboration

Historically, the public sector has worked in silos, with individual departments and local authorities responsible for their own digital projects.

However, Matt Hancock, Minister for the Cabinet Office, appears keen on greater levels of collaboration, particularly with the private sector, as he believes this will lead to financial savings. For example, he highlights the joint-venture between the UK Government and Ark Data Centres to provide hosting services for the whole government. Previously, each government department would have had to agree their own bespoke contract. This joint-venture could potentially save the UK government £105 million.

Local councils have also shown a willingness to collaborate, with many joining together to sign shared information and communications technologies (ICT) service contracts with suppliers. Usually these councils are neighbours; however we’ve recently seen ‘pioneering agreements’ between councils from different regions in England. Like the hosting agreement, this collaborative approach is expected to provide better value for councils.

Data

Eddie Copeland, Director of Government Innovation at NESTA, has written widely on the need for the public sector to make better use of its data. Although this is certainly true, there have been some successful data projects, such as the London Datastore, a free and open data-sharing portal for Greater London.

Eddie Copeland has proposed that London, as well as other devolved regions, should introduce a New York style ‘Office of Analytics’. This would be led by a Chief Data Officer who would have overall responsibility for managing and coordinating data projects. He suggests that having a central office to manage data could help UK cities in a number of areas, including increasing business growth, identifying illegal housing, and predicting possible fraud.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) has also announced plans to introduce a data service called GM-Connect. The service’s main purpose will be to help break down the barriers that prevent public services sharing information.

User-led approach

There is now a recognition that public services should be determined, not by the organisational and legal constraints of government departments, but by the needs of citizens. For instance, in a podcast in 2012, Mike Bracken, former head of the GDS, stated that “everything we do is based on users and user-testing.”

In the US, the city of Oakland has introduced an innovative pilot programme that assigns an ‘MVP’ (most valuable player), whose sole responsibility is to ensure that digital initiatives consider how users, outside of city hall, approach finding new services. In addition, it also uses surveys to understand how services are used, digital dashboards that display current activity on the city website, and virtual town halls, which provide an opportunity to receive direct feedback.

Multi-channel, cross platform

As technology has changed, citizens are now expecting to access public services via a range of devices, including smartphones and tablet computers. There is also the expectation that government services are able to match the experiences provided by private sector organisations such as Facebook and Google. Social media has also become so pervasive that some organisations receive more visits to their social media pages than their main websites. Public services, therefore, need to be optimised for mobility, as well as providing a consistent multi-channel service.

Conclusion

At the moment, public sector organisations are using digital technology to improve public services. However, if they are to make the savings highlighted by last year’s Spending Review, they will need to refocus their efforts on digital initiatives.

The public services of the future will need to:

  • be based on a common set of shared platforms, processes and technologies
  • involve a number of stakeholders working together (whether private or public sector)
  • focus on the needs of users
  • harness data to provide targeted interventions and optimise services
  • be optimised for mobility
  • provide a consistent multi-channel experience.

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The digital world … why local government is still running to catch up

By Steven McGinty

In 2015, one third of local councils were still running Windows XP, months after a public sector-wide support agreement came to an end. By failing to update their systems, these local councils increased their vulnerability to cyber-attacks, potentially risking the loss of data.

Although many would argue that not installing a supported operating system is a minor risk, it does highlight a more fundamental issue with local government: whether it’s making simple upgrades or delving into advanced ‘smart city’ technologies, local government is struggling to keep pace with the digital world.

Why should local government invest in digital?

Local councils in England are facing a 6.7% cut in their funding by Whitehall between 2016-2020. It’s expected that the majority of the cuts will come in the first two years, easing off in the remaining two. Additional funding measures have been put in place for social care, including enabling local councils to raise £2 billion by increasing council tax and providing access to £1.5 billion from the Better Care Fund (BCF). However, Chair of the Local Government Association (LGA), Lord Porter, has emphasised that social care will not see the benefits of this funding for a decade and in the short term, services will still be under pressure.

So, with this challenging financial context, local government is looking to redesign services, to create efficiencies and improve the experience for citizens. Embracing digital could provide some solutions.

Where could digital be adopted?

According to the National Digital Report, local councils are wasting two million man hours per year by re-keying data they receive through online services or a customer relationship management (CRM) system. The research shows that 50% of local councils are re-keying more than half of the data they receive via e-forms, creating £14 million in waste. It’s estimated that 11% of local councils are re-keying all their data.

In addition, a report by independent consultancy Bluefin Solutions has found that if local councils improved their access to mobile technologies, they could save £10 million per year.  Chris Smith, Head of Public Sector at Bluefin Solutions, suggests that allowing council employees to access information via laptops and other mobile devices is an ‘untapped’ opportunity for council leaders. The report provides further detail, highlighting that local councils should allow staff to complete timesheets via mobile devices, engage with collaborative platforms, digitise data, and introduce a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy.

These are just a couple of examples of where technology- enabled savings could be made in local government.

Sounds great! Why hasn’t local government implemented more digital solutions?

Limited infrastructure

Although there are a number of initiatives to improve broadband services across the UK, a lack of connectivity is still an issue, particularly in rural areas. For smart city projects, Wi-Fi infrastructure needs to be in place to support millions of sensors and connected devices. And in remote communities, local councils need basic broad infrastructure to ensure they can implement digital solutions such as cloud services, as well as encourage mobile working.

Red tape

Unlike the private sector, local councils often face challenges with red tape and providing a business case, especially when investing in unproven technologies. Interestingly, though,  the Local Digital Today 2014 report found that the need to provide a business case for digital projects has slightly declined (falling from 85.4% in 2013 to 78.3% in 2014), suggesting that maybe digital technologies are gradually becoming more acceptable in local government. However, for the majority of local councils providing a clear business case can act as a barrier to digital change.

Funding

In theory, providing technical solutions to local government services should provide long term efficiencies. Yet, in an era of constrained budgets, finding the initial capital for digital projects can be challenging. Leaders in councils trying to fund social care services and schools may not view digital as a priority. And with the legal obligation to set a balanced budget, under the Local Government Act, councils are unlikely to fund projects with debt. Seeking external investment can also be a challenge, as (unlike start-ups looking to develop new technologies) local councils are unable to work with private sector organisations such as venture capitalists.

Local councils have also received no digital funding from the recent Autumn Spending Review – with all £1.8 billion being allocated to central government departments. Martin Ferguson, Director of Policy and Research at Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm), argues that investing in digital health without investing in digital social care means that efficiencies and improved outcomes for citizens will not be achieved.

Politics

The public sector has been scarred by failed high profile IT projects, including the abandoned NHS patient record system, which cost the taxpayer nearly £10 billion. As a result, local council leaders have tended to be risk averse and avoid investment in major digital projects.

Additionally, public concern over privacy, an issue raised when national ID cards were considered, has also impacted enthusiasm for digital. Even exemplar digital nations such as Estonia are underpinned by departmental data sharing agreements, which the British public may not be comfortable with.

Research has also shown that a limited understanding of smart cities by the public, has led to a lack of support. Local councils have therefore been reluctant to invest in projects that have limited demand.

Is devolution the answer?

In the Policy Exchange’s Smart Devolution report, co-author Eddie Copeland suggests that devolution might provide the tools to encourage greater digital progress. In particular, he highlights the ability city authorities will have to pool together funding from separate pots, co-ordinate initiatives at a city-wide level, and exploit the benefits of data through a designated Office of Data Analytics.

This won’t entirely address why local government has struggled with digital change. Yet, it’s possible devolution will provide greater opportunities for local government to embrace the digital world. Either way, it will be interesting to see what role digital plays in devolution deals, and how this will impact the lives of citizens.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our other posts on digital

Season’s readings: looking back on a year of blogging, and looking forward to 2016

Time Passing shutterstock_88253254

We’ve almost reached the turn of the year, a good moment to pause and reflect on what the Knowledge Exchange has been blogging about in 2015.

We’ve covered a wide range of subject areas, from education to the arts, health to housing. With over 160 blog posts since January, there’s too much to fully consider in this short review, but some of our featured blog posts are worth revisiting.

 A global view of digital government

Throughout the year, Steven McGinty has been taking readers on a world tour of technology, reporting on the application by and impact of digital technologies on governments at home and abroad.

In January, Steven looked at the potential and pitfalls of data sharing and linking up UK government databases. Later in the year, he highlighted public sector tech trends, including using technology to open up government and improve democracy. And Steven has also reported on digital government developments in Estonia, Norway and Singapore.

 Planning matters

The Knowledge Exchange started life as The Planning Exchange, and we still maintain a strong interest in planning issues.

In May, Morwen Johnson highlighted the increasing interest in contemporary strategic planning as a delivery solution to complex problems. Morwen noted that an RTPI policy paper had advocated a strengthening of strategic planning to secure greater co-operation with respect to development and to facilitate city regions.

In September, Rebecca Jackson reported from the annual Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference in Edinburgh, which covered the theme of “the changing landscape of planning”.

 Eventful posts

Rebecca joined the Knowledge Exchange in August 2015 and immediately hit the ground blogging. She’s been out and about reporting from events and covering topics as diverse as co-production in the criminal system, child neglect, wellbeing and resilience, and citizenship and identity.

 Learning to work, working to learn

Rebecca also reported from the Scottish Learning Festival, and during the year our blog has featured a number of other posts on education, skills, training and employment.

In July, Heather Cameron looked at the continuing challenge of enabling young people from disadvantaged areas to access higher education.

Stacey Dingwall described the issues raised in a report from the UK Commission for Education and Skills, which suggested that young people are facing a ‘postcode lottery’ when searching for work experience. And in September, Stacey highlighted our Knowledge Exchange briefing which focused on the crucial importance of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills in the UK.

Stacey’s post was also a useful reminder that, as well as blogging, we also gather evidence, data and research to produce briefings on key topics, such as change management, green infrastructure and new approaches to housing later in life.

 Save the day

Throughout the year, we’ve tried to observe significant days in the calendar by blogging on related topics.

  • To mark International Women’s Day, Donna Gardiner wrote about the barriers facing female entrepreneurs
  • On the International Day of Older Persons, I blogged about the economic opportunities of ageing
  • On World Food Day, I highlighted the problem of food waste, and what’s being done to tackle it

Special themes

We also blogged on three selected themes in 2015: cities; elections; and evidence-based policies:

  • In March Rebecca Riley considered the role of cities in the knowledge economy, while in April Morwen reported from a conference looking at smart cities in a critical light.
  • Rebecca also highlighted the importance of research and evidence for policy makers in a Knowledge Exchange White Paper, published in March.
  • In May, Stacey described her experience as part of the Idox Elections team in helping to deliver the company’s postal vote management system for the UK general election.

The year to come

Much of 2016 is still a calendar of unforeseen events. But some dates have been pencilled into the diary, and may well feature in the Knowledge Exchange blog next year.

Elections will take place on 5 May for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Greater London Assembly and for 128 local authorities in England. On the same day, there will be mayoral elections in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Salford and elections for Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales.

In the summer, the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will no doubt generate discussion on the legacy of London 2012.

Among the selected themes we’ll be focusing on in 2016 are cities and digital transformation. Meanwhile, ongoing issues are likely to continue making the news: the struggle facing local authorities to meet increasing demands with fewer resources; further devolution of powers from central government; climate change; health and social care integration; and the affordable housing shortage.

And it’s looking likely that by this time next year the people of the UK will have made their decision on whether to remain in or leave the European Union.

We’ll be scrutinising these and other developments, trying to make sense of them and keeping our readers posted on new research and evidence.

From all of us in the Knowledge Exchange, we wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous 2016.


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