Digitising government – who is responsible?

Here at Tekiu, we’re very interested in all things digital, especially when it comes to reform of public services. Last week we attended a discussion briefing hosted by the IfG to mark the launch of their new report on Digital Government. The lively debate took place against the backdrop of a provocative question: “Who is responsible for effective digital government?”. Unfortunately, we were not joined by a promised speaker from GDS, perhaps understandable given the tumultuous political events of the past couple of weeks but plenty of insight into the workings of government were suggested by the panelists who had come from years of serving in the public sector.

What did we learn?

  • While GDS is doing a good job at introducing data standards, these are far from being adopted across government. Much work is still needed to make government data more “modular”, ie. interoperable and easily accessible between different departments. Currently, the culture of attaching spreadsheets to emails still prevails.
  • According to the IfG report, 94% of government procurement on tech is still with large companies rather than SMEs.
  • For organisations to successfully integrate digital, the cultural shift needs to extend across all departments, it does not work if the digital team functions in isolation.
  • There are no real “poster boys” for digital government, although Daniel from IfG suggested that Norway was getting it right in many ways. The much cited example of Estonia is a poor basis for comparison for the UK because the post-Soviet country is much smaller and did not have legacy to contend with. The challenge with the UK public sector stems from having to adapt a highly developed, existing, messy system.
  • Janet Hughes of doteveryone suggested that governments look to the private sector for inspiration – Lego and GE have both used digital transformation to re-invent the brand and drive organisational change.
  • Typically, digital strategies are too “fluffy”, the panel suggested introducing specific timelines and incentives to help speed up delivery of digital transformation.
  • ~80% of questions are handled by local government so it is important to also think of digital transformation at this level. Currently the conversation focuses too much on Whitehall. (nB Nesta has been giving some attention to this topic, particularly how cities and regional government can make better use of data).
  • Key barriers are a lack of capability and leadership, but also a cultural shift that recognises digital success must step from reorganisation to a highly networked, horizontal system rather than the traditional hierarchical top-down structures.

A recording of the event is available here: https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/events/who-responsible-effective-efficient-and-secure-digital-government