What’s new about the new government digital strategy?

The launch of a new digital strategy by the UK government is always a prompt for superlatives.

“An ambitious statement of intent,” the latest three-year roadmap proclaims. It’s “a new era”. The “opportunity” presented by digital transformation of government is “immense” and the latest plans “will ensure UK society reaps the benefits for decades to come”. Savings beyond £1bn are promised.

Are you excited, citizen of the UK? If you’re half as excited as the minister and civil servants who announced the new strategy, then you should be positively bubbling over.

Here are some more key quotes from the launch of a Whitehall digital strategy:

The government has “a mission to modernise” in order to “renew our country”, and to achieve this, Whitehall is “asking every permanent secretary to ensure that their department has the capacity to drive through achievement of the key government targets and to take a personal responsibility for ensuring that this happens”.

“We will deliver public services to meet the needs of citizens,” says the plan, which aims to “develop an IT strategy for government which will establish cross-government co-ordination”.

Exciting, right?

However, please accept Computer Weekly’s sincere apology. We have covered many government digital strategies over the years and can get confused. Those latest key quotes were actually from Tony Blair’s Modernising government strategy, published in March 1999. Sorry about that.

Let’s bring the strategy more up to date.

“The shift towards online services has the power to transform the relationship between government and individuals,” we are told. “We will use digital technology to drive better services and lower costs,” with potential savings of over £1bn.

Thank you, Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister, for the insights. In 2010.

OK, properly up to date now: “The imperative is to change, therefore – and to do so at pace and at scale. This is the meaning of transformation. It is, in essence, a change of working, of culture and of disposition – changes that are made possible by digital technology… By harnessing digital to build and deliver services, the government can transform the relationship between citizen and state.”

That was the Cabinet Office minister, too. Ben Gummer (he didn’t last long; it’s understandable if you missed him). In 2017.

However, there was one quote from Gummer’s plan five years ago that has particular resonance for the really new strategy announced by the Cabinet Office last week.

From the 2017 strategy: “The UK government is one of the most digitally advanced in the world.”

From the 2022 strategy: “This will allow us to keep pace with global leaders and enable the UK to reclaim its position as a world leader in digital government.”

Honest and encouraging

And here we see the most honest – and encouraging – aspect of the new plan produced by the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), the latest Whitehall unit set up to drive the transformation of online public services.

This acknowledgement that the UK has slipped from leader to laggard reflects a realism perhaps absent from some of its predecessor strategies. For all the optimism and promise over many years, it is clear that delivery of online public services in the UK is well behind the digital offerings that people have become used to from the commercial world – and that people in many other countries have become used to from their governments.

As a result, the goals of the 2022 plan will be familiar to anyone who has followed the UK’s progress over the past 10 years: better digital skills in the civil service; transformation of public services; better use of data; a cross-Whitehall digital identity system. These have been aims common to most of those previous strategies.

But what is new is welcome evidence that digital government leaders have listened to, and accepted, criticism of past performance.

A 2021 report from the National Audit Office (NAO) highlighted a number of historic flaws in the delivery of digital services. According to Megan Lee, chief strategy and transformation officer at the CDDO, the recommendations from that report underpin the latest roadmap.

“[The NAO] said that we needed to have specific commitments, and those commitments needed to be achievable,” she said. “And it said that it needs to be backed by the right levers and accountability mechanisms to make this different. So that very much formed the basis of the principles around how we designed the [new] strategy.”

Lee identified four areas where the NAO proposals demonstrate the difference in approach now being followed.

First, sponsorship from senior departmental leaders in Whitehall. A high-level Digital and Data Board has been set up, chaired by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) permanent secretary Jim Harra, with membership including some of Harra’s fellow senior departmental leaders.

There is support from political chiefs, too. “The enthusiasm from ministers is absolutely key,” said the minister responsible for digital government, Heather Wheeler, parliamentary under-secretary in the Cabinet Office.

Second is what Lee calls “specificity”.

“Previous strategies have rarely quantified the outcomes that we’re trying to achieve,” she said. “We will be able to hold ourselves to account publicly in a way that we haven’t done previously.”

Third, the NAO made it clear that previous strategies didn’t properly consider the starting point.

“[They] were very aspirational, but not necessarily achievable,” said Lee. “And so we have done deep analysis and it’s underpinned by thousands of colleagues across government getting together and really challenging us to make sure that is achievable, and we actually can deliver against the commitments.”

The final NAO concern was one that has long been a criticism levelled at government IT – the lack of accountability. Many failed public IT projects have seen project leaders chopped and changed across their duration.

“One of the core levers we have to make sure that departments are continually making progress against our digital aims is our quarterly business review process,” said Lee.

“We’ll be tracking progress against the aspirations [of the strategy] and we’ve committed to releasing progress reports every six months to ensure that we’re being transparent.”

Changed expectations

Minister Wheeler also pointed to the changed expectations across Whitehall that resulted from the pandemic, where new digital services were set up at record speed to cope with the fast-changing circumstances of the health crisis.

“We’ve lived through Covid and the changes that were made by the amazing digital civil service teams,” she said. “We had to get stuff done incredibly quickly. And, if you like, that was almost a pilot for what we now know we can do.”

Other stakeholders highlight what they claim to be unprecedented levels of collaboration across Whitehall, to make sure departments were involved and fully bought-in to the strategy – where in the past, there had often been a sense that departments were having a plan imposed on them from the centre.

“There is alignment between departmental and CDDO strategies,” said Gina Gill, chief digital and information officer at the Ministry of Justice.

Jenny Rowland, deputy director, efficiency and Cabinet Office at HM Treasury, added: “This is one of the most collaborative cross-government things I’ve seen.”

One striking example of the promised collaboration concerns the development of a new £400m digital identity system to cover all of Whitehall’s online public services, called One Login, which will replace the failed Gov.uk Verify system.

Verify was mostly shunned by HMRC in favour of the department’s in-house system, Government Gateway. But going forward, the digital strategy component that covers One Login will be sponsored by HMRC’s Harra – a level of commitment not previously seen for replacing Gateway.

Similarly, the new policy makes a point of recognising the difficulties that have hindered past progress.

“We have significant challenges to overcome,” said the strategy document.

“We need to address years of uneven progress and siloed development in individual departments which have led to varying levels of digital maturity across government. We need to deal with the costly issue of legacy IT that has been allowed to build up over multiple financial cycles and is now a barrier to the delivery of great policy and services.

“We need to address the skills gap that we see at all levels of the civil service and compete more effectively with the private sector for skills, or our lack of skills will continue to hold us back and prevent us achieving our ambitions.”

The government says it is “committed to addressing these problems”.

“Significant financial investment has already been made in previous years, and in the 2021 Spending Review we committed to investing an additional £8bn in digital, data and technology transformation by 2025,” said the strategy paper.

Within the next three years, 50 of the top 75 online services will be improved to what the plan calls a “great” standard. And yes, the CDDO has defined what it means by “great”.

“We’ve defined ‘great’ in two ways,” said Lee.

“In terms of efficiency – obviously a real priority for government at the moment – and in terms of usability and user experience. We are using specific concrete measures across government to measure our progress and performance in a consistent way, using industry best practice – things like digital channel uptake, customer satisfaction, channel shift – to ensure that we are holding ourselves to account with that commitment.”

Revisiting some of those new superlatives seems an appropriate way to conclude: “This roadmap is designed to be different,” proclaimed the strategy paper.

“The creation of the CDDO has marked a new era of digital transformation in government, a hallmark of which is true collaboration and permanent secretary leadership for the digital agenda on a scale never seen before.”

Truly, the future of digital government must have been inspired by e-commerce in retail pioneer John Lewis. With statements like that one, this is a strategy that will never be knowingly undersold. For the sake of the UK digital economy – and of all the citizens crying out for better public services – it must also be knowingly over-delivered.

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