The reality of digital transformation of government

Since the 2000s people have embraced the digital revolution. From banking online to doing their food shopping, millions of individuals and businesses benefitted from the convenience of digital services. But government was slow to respond and found the transition to digital hard. Numerous digital strategies and policies came and went. But the way public services were delivered stayed the same.

In recent years government has been forced by budget pressures and customer demand to be more efficient and is using technology as a vital tool for achieving that.

The Government Digital Strategy set out how government will redesign its digital services so well that people prefer to use them. The Government Digital Service (GDS) started by replacing the jumble of government websites with just one – GOV.UK. It introduced new standards and worked across Whitehall to replace paper-based processes with a digital equivalent. And it is now introducing new platforms to solve problems common to all or many government departments (Government as Platform).

The result is that talk of ‘digital transformation’ is everywhere. To highlight just one example, at Budget 2015 the Government set out the vision for a transformed tax system. By 2020 it expects to fundamentally change the way the tax system works – transforming tax administration so it is more effective, more efficient and easier for taxpayers.

But what does ‘digital transformation’ really mean? And how is it different from the technology enabled change of the last twenty years?

My experience is that digital means different things to different people and at different times. And there is a large degree of confusion and frustration.

For me, the most common ways of explaining ‘digital transformation’ are:

  • ‘It isn’t analogue’, which means less paper, as bureaucratic form-filling is eradicated, and access to digital services that cut across silos, which is enabled through;
  • New modern technologies, which means having the right technology (including social, mobile, cloud, analytics) and capability (including new supplier standards) to deliver digital services; and
  • New ways of working, which means putting users at the heart of projects, introducing iterative models that allow for constant evolution of organisations and new ways of working.

The reality is that real digital transformation is achieved when all of these issues come together and we are more ambitious about the outcomes we want to achieve. This holistic approach is recognised in a recent document published by the Ministry of Justice. The next stage of reform for courts and tribunals will include end-to-end digital applications for Lasting Power of Attorney, probate and divorce.

Which means moving beyond the construction of a website as the entrance to government systems built in a bygone age.

Instead, the objective of digital transformation in government is increasingly about fundamentally changing structures, systems and processes behind those websites. Without this wholehearted approach, the promise of cost savings and better outcomes will fail to materialize.

My experience is that the conditions for success in digital transformation tend to be organizational rather than technological.

It depends, first and foremost, on political sponsorship to champion the initiative, an executive team to drive through execution and empowered and cohesive teams able to exercise strong governance (i.e. to identify early service and business risks).

Second, there is a need for rigorous business case discipline to shape and manage projects and ensure value capture (i.e. clearly articulating the benefits of IT investments, estimating costs accurately and picking the right projects to invest in).

And finally, as government use data — about infrastructure, health and safety, and citizen satisfaction — to improve services, integrated security solutions to align with business processes (i.e. digital identity and access management, data loss protection and cloud and mobility security).

I am keen to hear your thoughts on digital transformation and how it might be delivered in government. Please leave a reply below, or contact me by email.

Published by

Philip Craig

I am the Government Sector Strategy Director at Sopra Steria. My background is in the public (central and local government) and private (consultancy) sectors. I have an interest in public policy, technology and public service reform.

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