Looking beyond Brexit: identifying government’s digital future
Steve Thorn, Executive Director, Digital, Civica discusses the significant benefits to government of digital transformation
The digital transformation of government – be it central, local or devolved – is non-negotiable. Increased connectivity, powered by the near ubiquitous ownership of mobile phones means citizens expect to be able to access all types of services digitally and at their convenience, irrespective of whether it’s offered by a retailer or a government organisation.
Those external influences not only shape how government needs to respond to better serve the country, but also increases the expectations from their own internal users – many of whom now interact with cloud, AI and automated services on a daily basis. They therefore expect an instant and personalised customer experience as standard.
In addition, policy and legislation changes bring a new set of requirements and pressures. For example for border processes alone it was disclosed in a Public Accounts Committee hearing that there are around 30 IT systems in scope across HMRC, the Home Office and Defra that need to be changed or rewritten to meet post-Brexit border controls.
Economic benefits of technology
The economic benefits for transformation and digital government are significant, with the UK Government Digital Efficiency Report finding that digital transactions were 50 times cheaper than face-to-face ones. The opportunity to address major pain points, from slow, manual processes and managing multiple processes with limited headcount, to siloed ways of working and unfit-for-purpose systems, is also a major attraction of becoming a truly digital government.
However, talking about it, and doing it, are two different things. The UN’s E-Government Survey 2018 saw the UK slip from first in terms of e-government development in 2016 to fourth in 2018, with Denmark climbing from ninth place to take the top spot. While this is disappointing, the Danes’ performance suggests the UK can regain the initiative. Significant investment has already been made, and we are already starting to see a more pragmatic approach to digital modernisation, whether in procurement and technology choices or in the adoption of agile working methods. But with the increased pace of change, many departments are struggling to implement the digital transformation projects needed to future proof the government in the digital era.
Preparing for a digital future
As the famous saying goes, “It’s not about the destination, but the journey.” Before embarking on any digital journey, government leaders must know where they’re going and be prepared to respond to changes in their environment. The journey is increasingly one where the end point is hard to know from the beginning, so being flexible in approach and applying innovation is key.
In terms of practical advice, this often means thinking big but starting small, as government has started doing with its foray into robotic process automation (RPA) for HMRC and other digital initiatives. Also vital is developing a roadmap and making sure that it is delivering value early in the process.
What’s more, the importance of learning from others’ successes can be a key part of any digital transformation programme. Digital leaders should be looking at what those within other sectors and geographies are doing with an aim to apply their learnings throughout the public sector to accelerate their own digital journey.
Pinpointing digital skills needed
While the right digital vision is key, government will struggle to advance on any digital transformation journey without the adequate skills required to drive digital forward. Our research amongst government employees found a clear skills gap when it comes to technical skills, with a third (33%) blaming a lack of skills and knowledge for the UK’s fall in the UN E-Government survey. However, you also need people with a commercial focus who will ensure a return on investment and that the project is delivering value. Combined with experienced third-party partners, you can create a truly multi-disciplinary team with shared energy and drive to get you to your digital destination.
Thinking – and adapting – like an end-user
With user preferences, business needs and technology changing constantly, government is under pressure to ensure that its digital services are keeping up. The lifecycle of solutions is getting shorter and investment and renewal is now required more frequently. A service, once live, is no longer a ten-year solution – it needs to evolve in two to three years’ time.
This means thinking in shorter timeframes, potentially hard to do when policy isn’t changing that rapidly but it’s a must, given how fast technology evolves. A major influence is the millennial generation with its ‘anywhere, anytime, immediately’ user expectation. As that demographic increasingly becomes part of the workforce and uses services as citizens, it will become vital to think more short-term. Another main driver is data, with more available than ever before. The challenge is how to combine and se data across a range of scenarios, including: streamlining the user experience by avoiding the need to resubmit data that government already has; supporting better decision making with better data insights; and publishing more datasets to allow third parties to build additional services.
What does this mean with Brexit coming? For many organisations that means maximising the systems they have and extending how and where an application is used. It’s a bit like training existing employees versus hiring new people – while the latter is sometimes critical, it is also more expensive. Developing what you’ve already got helps you get more use out of your existing resource, which you’ve already made a significant investment in. This is likely why 68% of the central government workers we recently surveyed feel there are benefits to be gained from modernising legacy IT applications.
However, while for many this digital journey may seem complex, the reality is, it doesn’t need to be. The good news is that tackling digital transformation isn’t a job for government on its own – the expertise, experience and readiness to help organisations on this journey is out there. By working with the right partners, it can put in place the best models, approaches, previous experience and technology to overcome the challenges of a changing landscape.
While government has gradually become more adaptable around its technology adoption, procurement requirements and implementation methods, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for digital projects. To stay at the forefront of innovation – in the parameters of budgetary restraints of course – government leaders need to continuously re-evaluate what they are delivering and increase the flexibility of their services and systems to adapt to future changes and evolving demands.