Digital in Government: the next step is true transformation

Have you recently tried to access a government service and wondered why it can’t be as simple and easy as Amazon? Were you frustrated, like me, when required to print, complete and return a physical form rather than fill in a pre-populated online one?

In our recent survey of civil servants we wanted to understand how digital – the powerful combination of disruptive technologies underpinned by new business models – was being adopted across government. How is government seeking to enhance digital customer experience by optimising its digital infrastructure and insight from analytics?

Transformation = Restructure

Our Government Digital Trends Survey of nearly 4,500 civil servants over three years found they have a consistent understanding of what digital means. The most popular definitions chosen were ‘restructuring services’ followed by ‘improving online services’.

With government facing pressures from multiple directions, not least the challenge of implementing a successful exit from the European Union, civil servants view digital transformation as a win-win. Not only can it improve the quality of service that citizens receive, through the development of more convenient delivery models, but these same models can help government to reduce their costs.

But the sheer scale of changes facing the government means that the civil service needs to think harder about the way it works.

Breaking down ‘stove-pipe’ government

Adding to the skills gap I described in my previous blog, there are in-built structural challenges across government. Public services tend to adhere to ‘stove-piped’ models that have largely been left untouched for decades.

Departmental structures encourage civil servants to focus purely on their own priorities. The organisation of government provides little opportunity to consider how citizens’ needs cut across departmental boundaries.

The good news is that civil servants view the collection of data that underpins their operations as a core process. In 2017, civil servants told us that the most significant benefits of ‘big data’ were reducing expenditure (29%) and improving operational efficiency (21%). But opportunities for innovation in new processes (7%) and improving customer engagement (3%) trailed far behind.

Data-enabled government is needed

This example highlights the challenge and opportunity of digital transformation in government. A more innovative approach, such as a single interface for collecting data, is not only a source of efficiency. It allows government to remove the duplication of effort and provides a catalyst for the development of end-to-end processes that place the needs of citizens at the centre.

As government is understandably cautious by nature, digital transformation was initially limited to narrow front-end activities. The focus was on creating digital channels to ‘bolt on’ existing business processes, rather than redesigning processes endto end.

Yet government benefits from being one of the most ‘data-rich’ organisations. The growing number of data sets that are now generated, through the automation of processes, create huge opportunities to drive digital transformation. The Policy Exchange think tank suggested that the UK government could save up to £33 billion through improved data use.

What does data enabled digital government look like?

I think there is an urgent need for the joining and sharing of data across government to help civil and other public servants to plan more effective services targeted at those most in need.

There are several aspects to this data enabled digital government, including:

  1. Predictive analytics: Human resources tend to represent the largest single source of costs for government. Predictive analytics can maximise the efficiency of operations and improve workforce utilisation (helping government do more with – more often than not – less).
  2. Coordinated government analytics: Sharing data across government organisations drives benefits by avoiding the duplication of effort. But going beyond efficiency, the creation of cloud-based big data hubs leads to more personalised and targeted services.

And tailored and preventative approaches are urgently needed to address high cost social issues such as troubled families and health problems such as obesity. Predictive and coordinated analytics lend themselves to addressing these so called ‘wicked issues’ because they are so complex, fast moving and they involve changing the behaviour or gaining the commitment of individual citizens.

If you would like more information about the Government Digital Trends Survey, or would just like to raise a question, please feel free to add a comment below or contact me by email.

Government needs to invest and build digital skills across government – the view of civil servants

Having the right skills and capacities to hand is pivotal to the effective digital transformation of government. For the past three years, we have asked civil servants to tell us how government is adapting to changing digital skills needs as part of our Government Digital Trends Survey.

The most startling finding from this year’s survey is a rise in the number of civil servants who say that a lack of training is a barrier to digital transformation

Lack of available skills continues to be a barrier to transformation

In 2017, 62% of civil servants placed lack of training for staff among the top three barriers to digital transformation of government. Despite a significant increase in training over the last twelve months, 43% of respondents told us that they had not received enough digital training to do their job well (an increase of 6% points since 2015). When asked about whether they personally receive adequate digital skills training to do their job, the number agreeing was just 12% (a decrease from 20% since 2016).

Seeking to fill this digital skills gap, we found that civil servants are taking a proactive approach to skills acquisition:

36% are using self-directed study in their own time to develop their digital skills (an increase of 12% points since 2015)

Civil servants are calling out a lack of specialist digital skills

Several types of skills are needed: technical and professional skills, including ICT specialist skills for workers who drive innovation and support digital infrastructures and the functioning of the digital services. This year we asked civil servants, including those working in digital programmes, to identify the top three digital skills gaps in their organisation.

Development and service design were the most popular answers, chosen by 44% of respondents. The next most common answers were agile delivery management (37%), user research and technical architecture (36% each).

To seize the benefits of digital, government needs these in-demand specialists: workers who can code, develop applications, manage networks and analyse data, among other skills. These skills enable innovation to flourish, often in collaboration with the private and not-for-profit sectors, but also support the infrastructure that government and users rely on.

What are the priority skills policies to meet these challenges?

Addressing the challenges of digital will require an overhaul of government’s skills policies. It must ensure that an increasingly digital world yields better quality jobs and that civil servants have the means to take advantage of the new job opportunities that open up.

In my opinion there are five priorities for skill policies to facilitate take-up of these opportunities:

  1. Part of the task is to ensure that all civil servants have basic ICT skills as well as solid problem-solving skills to use ICT effectively. Many of these skills are also acquired outside education and training institutions – for instance, and as we have found through the survey, in the workplace. Government could support and better recognise skills acquired by civil servants outside formal channels.
  2. It is not just sufficient for civil servants to have skills – government must fully use these skills to reap their benefits in terms of higher productivity. The use of digital skills, including problem solving in a technologically rich environment, varies substantially across the civil service. A key factor driving this variation is the use of high performance work practices such as teamwork, work autonomy, training, flexible work hours, etc.
  3. For ICT specialist skills, basic programming is no longer enough. For instance, advanced engineering and experience with machine-learning are increasingly important. In addition, ICT specialists also need domain-specific knowledge, given the potential applications of ICT in the business of government, such as health, education and welfare.
  4. Government needs to better assess and anticipate changing skills needs in order to adapt programmes and pathways offered and guide civil servants towards choices that lead to better outcomes. By including all stakeholders in skills assessment exercises government can ensure that the information collected is useful and that policies respond to actual needs. This includes working closely with industry to address shortages in areas of strategic importance.
  5. As skills demands change continuously, training for civil service to keep up with new skills requirements is crucial. This requires offering better incentives for civil servants to re-skill and up-skill. And includes, for example, the government fully supporting and embracing the Digital Academy initiative in the Government Digital Service (GDS).

If you would like more information about our Government Digital Trends Survey, or would just like to raise a question or add information, please feel free to add a comment below or contact me by email.