Government transformation strategy misses the opportunity to transform the wider public sector

Written by Jos Creese on 14 February 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

The government’s transformation strategy seems to be more about re-packaged principles when it needed to demonstrate how a revolution could be achieved in practice, says independent digital analyst Jos Creese. 

Whitehall aerial view

The government should have looked beyond Whitehall to the wider public sector in its latest strategy, says Jos Creese: Photo credit: PA

My mother used say that if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.

And that is what most people will do with the new, long-awaited government transformation strategy. Although some may not have the courage to openly criticise the Government Digital Service due to contracts, reputation, politics and vested interests, it needs challenge to improve chances of success.

On opening the strategy, I was hoping to find rather more (although not more words - at 93 pages long I confess I have not digested every morsel). I was left with the overall impression of a mix of re-packaged principles and refreshed 'transformational government' themes, coupled with some new but not revolutionary ideas.

"The strategy is rather safe, and even timid."

There are certainly good bits, but for a service that describes itself as world-class, this strategy, for me at least, falls short. It’s rather safe and even timid, with a continued heavy focus on central government departments.

Although I recognise the scale of the challenge facing those tasked with modernising Whitehall, I would have liked to see more truly innovative digital thinking and practice, planned across the whole of the public sector for the next three to five years

For instance, we needed a recognition of issues of the past that need to be put straight, such as the breakup of the government CIO structure that existed across Whitehall, the massive and costly outsourced IT solutions and contracts still in place, failures of tech policies and major programmes.

And then there is the general lack of pace (how long is GOV.UK Verify taking?) – this strategy should be indicating a new direction and approach, with evidence of how it would be done.


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There also needs to be a greater focus on the business issues of government that need to be resolved: the strategy lacks enough definition of how digital practice will solve the problems facing public services today. For example, the policy ambitions in every government department could be linked with a high-level digital action plan with clear cross-policy connections – such as ‘benefits, housing, care and health’.

It would be unfair to say that none of these get a mention – and the focus on data, cyber security and the implications of Brexit in particular are important and included. Nonetheless, the strategy needs more detailed delivery plans, investment profiling, and measurable outcome benefits, so we can all truly track performance. Maybe that will follow.

Wide of the mark on the wider public sector

There is one major missed opportunity: the timing of this strategy offered the chance to create the basis for a genuine collaboration between central and local delivery. It’s mentioned briefly in a couple of areas, but there could have been much more, reflecting the implications of devolution.

Whitehall and GDS have an important role to play in solving wider UK digital public service challenges, especially for local public services in health care, local government, crime prevention and the third sector.

The GDS team has spoken in the past about needing to understand, listen to and embrace the 80% of public services that lie outside the central government. This strategy was that chance to make a break with the insular practices of the past.

"The strategy could have offered a single message of how ‘digital’ can connect disparate policy issues together."

Take for example the broader opportunities around citizen identity management and the barriers that this would overcome if resolved (this is more than GOV.UK Verify itself). Or health and social care integration and the wider redefinition of care delivery based on digital means, place-based and citizen-centred.

Beyond this, there is the difference that digital thinking and application could make in a vast range of public service challenges – everything from 'troubled families', to improved quality of education, equality and inclusion, protecting the environment and the prevention of crime.

The strategy could have offered a single message of how ‘digital’ can connect disparate policy issues together, overcoming the existing fragmentation between often competing areas, such as the economy, community, health, Brexit, environment and more.

Not to mention new models for public-private partnerships, a greater focus on the barriers of digital inclusion, broadband mobile and Wi-Fi everywhere, and links to UK research.

I do sympathise with the challenges GDS faces in getting a pan-government, let alone a pan-public sector mandate.

I also recognise that there are some very powerful ideas included in the strategy. But as I read the stated objectives in the strategy, I ask myself why many of these have not already been achieved, and why some of them must apparently wait for 2020 – if not longer? It lacks the sense of urgency that is badly needed.

"There is today a once in a generation chance to use technology far beyond modernising public services."

Despite these criticisms, I am a strong supporter of GDS and its vision for digital public services. What the team achieved in the first five years should now, however, be developing into a new, innovative, entrepreneurial and visionary future, with less emphasis on rebuilding a vision with some new language.

There is today a 'once in a generation' chance to use technology far beyond modernising public services, in creating leaner and re-engineered services so that they have more powerful, joined-up impact on the economy, education, research, industry, communities and the lives of every citizen.

We need to create a 'smart UK' where technology is a solution to today's problems and creates tomorrows opportunities.

The minister for Cabinet Office’s introduction to the new strategy describes this opportunity, but the strategy itself does not go far enough, fast enough, or convincingly enough to demonstrate how this revolution would be realised in practice.

About the author

Jos Creese is a long-term CIO, CDO and public sector advisor on digital matters. Now an independent consultant, he advises and supports public and private sectors alike on digital models of operation, with an emphasis on the opportunity and the importance of local public services.

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