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As we approach yet another election, I began to reflect on the last but one occasion that the UK electorate had the opportunity to make its feelings known and create a new or at least different shaped government. More importantly, that the back-drop for the UK was a near bankrupt nation, created a collective recognition from politicians, public and most importantly, public servants, that something fundamental had to change. It did – or almost…

In 2010, these conditions provided a young (at heart) maverick (@cantwaitogo “Unacceptable”) the opportunity to right-size government – well at least the IT bit. Standing conventional wisdom on its head, the traditionally restrictive and aggregated approach to procurement was broken down into standardised elements and opened up to (almost) all potential suppliers: Cloud was born. In parallel, world class talent was tempted to take on a mission to help save the nation and prove that government could deliver IT outcomes that met user needs – Government Digital Service was born.

Having delivered savings of c£1.5bn, encouraging 2726 suppliers to compete for £1.7bn of services up to November 2016 (with SMEs winning 56% of contract value on the level playing field) and securing the ultimate accolade of beating the Mini, the 2012 Olympics Cauldron and The Shard to the prestigious Design of the Year award in 2013, the first wave of change has, even to the sceptics’ eye, made a difference; though maybe not quite the difference that was promised nor quite as sustainable as hoped. Nevertheless it would be an alternative fact to argue that the supply chain faced by government ICT in 2010 has not changed for the better or that government does not have the capability to deliver digital services that meet world leading standards.

Much has gone well:

  • Greater confidence within government about delivery of successful digital services that provides the basis to build on the next level and develop platforms relevant to government, that can be shared across all levels of the UK public sector.

  • Furthermore, through a clear structure about best practice with Digital Service Design Principles and a Technology Code of Practice, UK Government has established a leading global position on the use and sharing of open source code and inter-operability of activities through clear APIs.

  • An expanded vendor base, based on the Digital Marketplace (still affectionately known as G-Cloud), built on a dynamic ecosystem of innovative suppliers with a more agile and less adversarial approach and greater transparency of pricing and relationships between providers and government as a customer; transparency which mandated that if suppliers were to drop their price, they had to do so for everyone. This was to the benefit of the whole of government and prevented suppliers from simply gaming the system for the specific contract they were chasing.

However, considerable challenges remain.

  • Procurement cultures have an inbuilt instinct to aggregate rather than disaggregate, to extend contract terms rather than develop a portfolio of interchangeable suppliers, and most of all to stick to what they know rather than strive to improve.

  • Security has moved on from a rigid ‘tick box’ approach that encouraged departmental ownership of physical assets to a more risk-based approach based on data assets and the implications of their loss or amended integrity. However, this world appears to be polarising around:
    • entrenchment into silos driven through a perceived ability to deliver a lower residual risk at a given price point; or
    • an attitude of ‘never mind because public cloud solves all security risks’.

The reality, recognised at the recent opening of the National Cyber Security Centre, is that neither approaches are appropriate. Furthermore, whatever the outcome of our Brexit negotiations, the impending implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that places emphasis on the citizen’s ownership of data, makes appropriate risk assessment even more relevant. Are data controllers and data processors even aware that this is the case? Does the average developer or project owner even understand how to undertake a relevant risk assessment that not only highlights the residual risks of each option after mitigation but also records the process that lead to any given decision?

  • Elements of what remains of the GDS development teams are too often biased towards the extreme end of evangelism on their preferred development religion, which effectively negates the value of their core message from the communities that they are seeking to influence and change; often their response to lack of understanding appears to be simply to shout louder. While I understand that moving the pendulum is not easy – I’ve lived it for the past six years – surely empathetic communications for those that are motivated to change and willing to listen is surely a better change management solution to secure improved outcomes than simply beating harder with a bigger stick?

  • There are numerous examples of spats between GDS and Departments typical of the devolved nature of Westminster-based governments. Where delivery responsibility sits with the Departmental Minister and Permanent Secretary, it’s understandable that the Department might want to enforce their individual needs, even where it’s patently stupid and against the common good. Equally, the centre is more than capable of pig-headed pursuit or defence of their chosen sacred policy at the expense of rational thought. But that’s human behaviour for you and that’s why Yes Minister and The Think of It are compelling comedy. The Cabinet Office’s challenge is to find and make the case for the route of enlightened self-interest. Failing that revert back to Francis Maude and a very big stick because the national approach to digital service development needs the central leadership that is currently sadly lacking. We simply cannot afford the alternative.

In spite of the recent release of the long overdue Transformation Strategy that sets out the next stage of the UK Government’s approach to digital transformation, there is a sense that the commitment has waned from that of 2010. On one level this is not surprising as momentum is difficult to maintain and the UK has other priorities, most notably Brexit. However, the nation is still facing a growing debt burden alongside the financial challenges of maintaining health and care expenditure and balancing the growing fracture between the haves, the Just About Managing (JAMs) and the “never hads”. 

In all respects, digital transformation has a major role to play in helping with these challenges. Arguably, alongside an extraordinary increase in educational spending, it is one of the few solutions that will enable ageing western democracies to work through the economic dislocation that Baby Boomers and GenerationX are bequeathing to our youth. Unfortunately, as I suspected, Digital Transformation is not figuring highly in either the political messaging or related media questioning during this election.  Despite all the overt fear of AI, machine learning, and robotics and the implication on employment, my personal belief and expectation remains that the greater the agile, data driven societies the better placed the nation will be to support a more robust, supportive, inclusive, and connected communities.

Therefore, it’s a cause worth fighting for.

Featured Image Courtesy of ar130405

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