Maude: UK is digital 'world leader' - despite 'inconsistencies'

Governments across the world are looking to the UK as an exemplar for how to execute digital transformation, according to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.

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Governments across the world are looking to the UK as an exemplar for how to execute digital transformation, according to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.

One year on from the launch of the government’s digital strategy, the minister claimed that the UK was a “world leader” in digital. However, he also acknowledged the “inconsistencies” between departments and their digital capabilities.

In a briefing at the Cabinet Office this week, Maude compared the design award-winning single domain website, GOV.UK, with the disastrous launch of the US’ ‘Obamacare’ Healthcare.gov website.

“We have got international recognition. When the Obamacare website got released to universal criticism it was interesting that quite a lot of the commentary said: why didn’t they do what the British government is doing?” said Maude.

“They [the US] did it the old fashioned way. We have gone from crap at this stuff to being recognised as a world leader.”

He added: “Progress on the Civil Service Reform has been mixed, but this is one of the areas we have made real serious progress. We said we would do all this and save shed loads of money for the taxpayer.”

The government launched its Digital Strategy in 2012, tasking departments with a digital by default policy and promised to digitise some of the public sector’s largest transactional services in a bid to save £1.7 billion a year after 2015.

However, the ‘one year on’ report notes that the Government Digital Services will not reach its deadline of transitioning all agencies and arm’s length bodies websites to GOV.UK by the end of March 2014 - the completion has now been delayed to July 2014.

Maude also said that some departments are not quite yet up to speed, with particular reference to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), which is yet to publish a digital strategy. GDS executive director Mike Bracken said at the briefing that DCLG’s failure to do this was “disappointing, but not the end of the world”.

Maude added: “Some departments are ahead of others for sure, but what the report shows is the digital revolution has taken hold. You’ll see from the departmental updates that progress is not consistent, but this is such important stuff that it has to be a priority.”

However, he maintained that GDS and the digital agenda now have credibility in Whitehall.

“One of the problems we had early on was a credibility issue – you’d go around Whitehall and say: well actually this piece of work could be done for a tenth of the cost you expected. People were so accustomed to being told if it looks too good to be true, it probably is,” said Maude.

“But we have shown that we can do things for staggeringly less than people expect. There is now a high degree of credibility. We are way beyond the stage of trying to get the attention of government departments, we are now at the stage where we are beating off demand.”

Of the 25 ‘high volume and high profile’ services across government that GDS selected last year to transform into new digital products, one is live (student loans), 15 are in beta, six are in alpha, and two in discovery.

GDS has decided to drop one of the services – criminal records check – after investigating it during the discovery phase, and is now looking to transform another service.

“This is the embodiment of us doing things differently – none of these are very large contracts, non involve multi-year SI [system integrator] deals, none involve writing massive requirement documents,” said Bracken.

“We are doing the major programmes around major public services in an iterative way. That alone I think is a mark of success.”

Today the Cabinet Office also announced an update to the Digital Strategy, which includes two new actions. The first is a formal commitment by government to work on digital inclusion, to ensure that no one gets left behind as government goes digital by default.

Departments are required to think about what they can do to help people get online and also what they need to do to assist people who may never be able to.

Secondly, the Cabinet Office will further explore ways to syndicate information and transactions so that third-party organisations can create new services and provide better information access for their own users.

“The last year has seen us take unprecedented steps in making government digital by default. By working with departments, we are doing things that no government has ever accomplished,” said Bracken.

“I’d like progress to be more consistent, but we should feel more proud of a year that has seen services improved, taxpayer money saved, civil service digital capability boosted and a greater variety of partners and suppliers working with government.”