Breaking through the barriers
In the first of a series of exclusive blogs, GlobalData's Rob Anderson examines the challenges still being faced for UK public services.
Breaking through the barriers of Digital transformation
It’s almost five years since the Cabinet Office produced a comprehensive digital strategy for government. In the first of a series of three blog posts, Rob Anderson, Principal Analyst for Central Government in the GlobalData Public Sector team looks at the challenges still faced in driving forward transformation of public services.
In December 2013, Francis Maude, then Minister for the Cabinet Office set out a bold vision for digitisation of public services aimed at delivering better, cheaper and more efficient interactions between government and its citizens. In an age where use of the internet to order goods and services, book holidays and carry out routine banking processes was becoming ubiquitous, online government services were the exception rather than the rule.
So, five years on, how much has been achieved?
If we’d asked that question two years ago, the situation would have looked somewhat rosier with the UK sitting at No. 1 in the 2016 United Nations E-Government Survey for both e-government development and e-participation. Since then however we have slipped to 4th and 9th in the rankings respectively in the 2018 survey. Undoubtedly, one reason for that has been the diversionary effect of the process to take the UK out of the European Union, but it alone cannot account for the stalling of the transformation journey. Brexit is the first in a triumvirate of ‘B’s that are proving stubborn barriers to progress, with Bodies (human capital) and Budgets (slashed via austerity measures) completing the trio.
Redesigning, reconfiguring or rebuilding systems to support an administration independent of the EU is stretching the civil service to its limits, not least because of the lack of clarity in establishing what end-state processes the systems need to cater for. 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. When you add in systems to support independent trade agreements, reestablishment of in-country regulatory bodies and replacement of grant-funding processes, the enormity of the task looms large. With March 2019 drawing ever closer, the pressure on departmental IT teams to deliver mounts daily, meaning other transformational projects get de-prioritised.
Successive governments’ policies of large-scale outsourcing of technology and support over the last twenty years have weakened the IT capability within the civil service. It has lost not only of deep technical skills, but also IT programme management expertise and supply chain oversight capabilities. Whilst the formation of the Government Digital Service (GDS) began a process to rekindle these skills, its influence appears to be on the wane and it is widely accepted that such skilled resources are at a premium and cannot be regained overnight. With significant competition for qualified staff from more cash-rich organisations in the financial and digital sectors, the government is struggling to recruit and retain a workforce capable of delivering a sustained period of transformation. Hence the emergence of a raft of digital development shops contracting through the Digital Marketplace to provide pools of resources for short- to medium-term support of transformation projects.
The A(usterity) word may have been banished, but fiscal constraints on departments remain stringent with savings targets resulting in tough decisions having to be made on operational priorities. Whilst digitisation of services was intended to release billions of pounds of cash, the slow pace of change and the necessity to continue with existing, expensive, service channels for the digitally disadvantaged has meant these savings have not yet been realised. A recent GlobalData survey on utilising innovative technologies revealed that upwards of two thirds of IT budgets are spent on maintenance of legacy systems, thereby greatly reducing the opportunity to fund radical transformation projects.
It is clear that the government needs to partner with the tech community to reignite the digital transformation journey. However, given the risk adverse environment that many civil servants operate within, the result can be continued engagement with a select group of known suppliers rather than exploring the wider marketplace for potentially more appropriate solutions and partners.
In the second part of this series, we will look at how adaptation and modernisation of existing systems rather than taking a ‘rip and replace’ approach could lead to an accelerated pathway for transformation.
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