The long-awaited strategy for the Government Digital Service was finally launched today, more than a year since it was promised, providing an outline of how it intends to reach the ambitious goal of using its £450 million budget to save £3.5 billion by the end of 2020.
Minister for the Cabinet Office Ben Gummer MP announced the proposals at the annual conference of public sector think tank Reform.
The proposals have been renamed the "Government Transformation Strategy", and the title reflects a wider range of implications than was earlier expected, with the focus extended from online services to a constant cycle of digital evolution in both facilities for citizens and government infrastructure.
Gummer called it "the most ambitious programme of change of any government anywhere in the world", but beneath the grandiose claims is a strategy that appears more piecemeal than revolutionary.
The political upheaval of recent months caused by the confusion over Brexit and a new government seems to have resulted in a plan that is largely made up of long-established policies dressed up as new innovations.
What is in the Government Transformation Strategy?
Plans to release the strategy were first announced in November 2015 by then-chancellor George Osborne but its release has been repeatedly delayed.
It had first been scheduled for publication in December 2015 but was pushed back until last September and then again until Christmas, with the delays due to the referendum on European Union membership, then the appointment of a new head of the Government Digital Service and rumours of funding concerns and Whitehall disarray.
The strategy splits digital transformation into transforming citizen-facing services, then full department and internal government transformation.
The objectives in the policy paper are to transform the way government operates, develop digital skills and culture, build better tools and processes for civil servants, improve use of data and promote shared platforms and reusable business capabilities.
Underlying all the plans is an aim for more joined-up departments, shared platforms and compatible technology.
The details predominately consist of plans for frameworks, updates and ongoing improvements, such as an already announced digital real-time tax system and ambitions to make 90 percent of passport applications and put 75 percent of the 2021 National Census online.
Connecting systems and dismantling silos
A focus on better collaboration and interoperability is central to the strategy. The government has committed to accelerate uptake of the identity assurance service GOV.UK Verify, and has set the ambitious aims of having 25 million users of the services by the end of 2020. It also wants to extend access to the services connected to Verify, and is planning pilots with the commercial sector, local authorities and banks.
The services for citizens are just one part of the plans. The complexities caused by what Gummer calls a "big and slow" government make it an unwieldy beast not naturally suited to rapid adaptation.
"Government has been slow to use the transformative potential of digital technology to change the way it does business," Gummer admitted.
The strategy intends to support smoother sailing, with the lofty goal of building services that run seamlessly across government, an aim that is more ambitious but also more urgent following the vote to leave the European Union.
"We will transform government services and make government itself a digital organisation," the paper reads. It implies that this will be done through collaborative thinking that breaks down silos into lateral structures - although there isn't much detail on how this will be achieved.
The strategy also emphasises harnessing the power of data to create more cohesive services and more empowered citizens. The government wants to share private data across different departments by removing barriers to access through the data sharing provisions of the Digital Economy Bill.
It also promises the appointment of a new chief data officer and a new Data Advisory Board to align data use and establish a new GDS Digital Academy to provide tech training for 3,000 civil servants per year.
Privacy campaigners may be concerned by the increased access to sensitive personal data, evidently not reassured by government promises to use it ethically and securely, and to be more transparent about how the information is used to develop policy and improve services.
GDS contributed more than £600 million to the £1.7 billion saved through digital and technology transformation in 2015, through spend controls and innovations such as the Public Service Network and GOV.UK, and has been tasked with driving further savings before 2020, although exact targets are missing.
The government plans suggest it will be supported by cross-department collaboration, better use of data, more skilled civil servants and a constant cycle of innovation is how the government plans.
The Government Transformation Strategy may not herald the revolution that the policy paper promises, but it has at least finally provided an outline of the digital roadmap ahead.
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