Over the last 10 years or so, successive UK governments have announced ambitious IT initiatives which promised to transform the delivery of public services. At the same time, they would bring significant cost savings, helping the public sector to do more with less.
The Ministry of Justice system to monitor criminals with electronic tags ran five years late and cost £60 million, described by the Public Accounts Committee as ‘a catastrophic waste of public money’
The Verify digital identity service was supposed to attract 25 million users by 2020 but managed barely 4 million.
Universal Credit was rolled out via a system created in partnership with several major IT suppliers and although the system proved inadequate, the Department for Work and Pensions continued to run it alongside a replacement solution, at a cost of £837 million.
There are many other examples across the public services, but the technology itself can’t be blamed. In the private sector, digitalisation strategy has produced a very different experience, from online banking to streaming and ecommerce, which has genuinely enhanced people’s lives. What all these public sector failures have in common is mismanagement.
What this demonstrates is that any digital plan is only as effective as the people who implement it. For this reason, the announcement in June 2022 of the new government digital transformation strategy might not inspire optimism. However, there are many signs that the lessons of past projects have been learned. The National Audit Office’s 2021 report explicitly identified the key flaws .
This time we might be about to see genuine advances in both service delivery and cost-efficiency. The government’s digital strategy is prefaced by the following statement: "This will allow us to keep pace with global leaders and enable the UK to reclaim its position as a world leader in digital government." The plan has much in common with the Scottish government digital strategy, which was announced 15 months earlier in March 2021.
The fundamental goals of the new plan are similar to those of its predecessors. The digital skills of the civil service will be improved, data will be used more effectively, public services will be more quickly and efficiently provided and there will be a single cross-Whitehall digital identity system. The difference is in the attitude and constructive acceptance of past criticisms.
The essence of this new approach is illustrated in four key areas.
– A top level Digital and Data Board has been established, chaired by the permanent secretary of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and including several senior heads of department. There is also widespread support at cabinet level.
– The new strategy lays out specific outcomes which it is designed to achieve. They have never been properly quantified in the past, so this time the government and civil service will be able to hold themselves accountable to the public through the transparency of the process.
– The 2022 plan is based on goals that are achievable as well as aspirational. Feasibility studies have been conducted to ensure that results can be delivered.
– A comprehensive system of accountability is built into the plan. In the past, leaders have been replaced and parameters altered without being subject to proper scrutiny and managerial oversight. Every element of the new government digital transformation strategy will be subject to monitoring, measurement and approval.
In its 2021 Spending Review, the government made a commitment to invest an additional £8 billion in digital transformation between 2022 and 2025. By the end of this period, the expectation is that public services will be significantly more efficient and, crucially, designed to meet the needs of the user. At the same time, the civil service will be trained to the highest level of digital capability and given the necessary tools and data to perform to the new standard. Access to and use of services will be improved by integration, the lack of which is a major barrier to public participation.
Access to public services will become faster and easier with current online practices such as applying for benefits or renewing a driving licence being joined by many other routine interactions. Newly developed digital systems run by highly-skilled digital experts across all departments will simplify contact, reduce errors and save taxpayers’ money.
In the private sector, it has long been recognised that digital transformation drives efficiency, reduces costs, accelerates delivery and provides a much better user experience. The new initiative represents the government’s determination to bring the same benefits to the public sector. The potential savings include more than £1 billion by moving from paper-based services to digital and £101 million per year by adopting a competitive salary framework to reduce staff turnover and the reliance on expensive contractors and consultants.
The 6 Missions of the Digital Government Strategy 
1. Raising Standards in Public Services
The government has pledge that a minimum of 50 of its top 75 services will meet the criteria to be judged ‘great’ by 2025. This will be aided by embedding cross-functional teams and digital approaches into design and delivery.
2. One Login
Instead of the current position, where online users need a separate ID and password for each service, the plan for a single login will be finalised by April 2023 with implementation beginning by 2025. One Login will replace the failed Gov.uk Verify system – which was largely rejected by HMRC in favour of its own Government Gateway solution. It will cost £400 million but finally brings much closer the idea of a single way to access all public services.
3. Data Sharing
All departments will make data shareable and accessible to create a data marketplace as versatile and comprehensive as those used in the private sector. At least 50% of the highest priority data issues will be resolved within a specified timeframe.
The acquisition of hardware and software will conform to rigorous standards of resilience, re-use and re-deployment to eliminate waste and extravagance in the procurement process. Mobile applications, AI, blockchain and other emerging technologies will be used to maximise the lifecycle of resources.
5. Digital Skills
Using the digital, data and technology (DDaT) framework, government departments will define current and new roles to mirror those of the private sector in order to improve recruitment. Extensive training in all departments will increase the digital skills of senior civil servants and DDaT professionals. Recruitment policy will incorporate a commitment to diversity.
6. Unlocking Digital Transformation
The Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) will collaborate with the Treasury, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, Finance and Commercial to eliminate the barriers inherent in the system and enable cross-departmental and multi-disciplinary cooperation.
The Lessons of the Pandemic
Although governments have been conscious for years of their failures to keep pace with digital advances, it’s impossible to ignore the influence of the pandemic in motivating the new digital plan. Heather Wheeler is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office with responsibility for digital and data, government business services and science, technology and innovation. She commented: "We’ve lived through Covid and the changes that were made by the amazing digital civil service teams. We had to get stuff done incredibly quickly. And, if you like, that was almost a pilot for what we now know we can do."
The Wider Strategic Aims
While there is a clear focus on transforming public services, the government’s strategy is also designed to complement its levelling up plans and make digital services and skills more widely accessible for the public. There is plenty of evidence that large sections of the population are being left behind by the forward march of digital technology – often, but not always, the older members of society. Economic circumstances can also hold people back, including the young, whose access to digital resources may be limited to their schools.
The government is also investing in intellectual property, research and development to stimulate private investments and encourage the growth of digital businesses. Artificial intelligence, digital twins and autonomous systems will be central to the growth of UK digital expertise.
Chris Philip is the Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy. He said: "Developed economies face long-term challenges around growth, productivity and real wages. Just as Thatcher unleashed the power of the market to transform our economy in the 1980s, unleashing the power of the tech sector will transform our economy today.
In the last five years, the UK has raced ahead of Europe to become a global tech leader and now we’re setting the course for the future. The Digital Strategy is the roadmap we will follow to strengthen our global position as a science and technology superpower. Our future prosperity and place in the world depend on it." 
Security and privacy are constant concerns as digital technology evolves. To avoid conflict and needless obstruction, the government envisages a number of reforms to data policy.
Reform of the UK’s General Data Protection Regulation
The responsibilities of regulatory bodies will be increased while the compliance obligations of businesses will be reduced in a rebalancing that will enable innovation and encourage research while maintaining the highest standards of data protection and ensuring the continued free flow of personal data from Europe.
Smart Data Schemes
There will be legislation to improve consumer access to and sharing of data through the agency of trusted third parties, practices known as smart data schemes. Industry participation in such schemes will be increased.
The government will use its best endeavours to ensure that international trade agreements enable the continued cross-border free flow of data to prevent restrictive localisation which could promote protectionism.
Secure Digital Identities
Further legislation will create secure pathways which public bodies can use to share data with other organisations to confirm the identity of an individual.
Measures will be put in place and kept under review to ensure that patient data is used responsibly within the NHS, keeping it secure while also optimising its usefulness.
Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum (DRCF)
The DRCF was established by various UK regulatory bodies to improve collaboration. Under the new digital strategy the DRCF will play a role in creating a coherent and coordinated regulatory structure which will help businesses meet their compliance obligations as the data policy reforms are implemented.
Honesty and Transparency of the New Strategy
As we’ve mentioned, the government is tainted by its unhappy past experiences in IT innovation. The new document takes great pains to acknowledge its history and it’s worth quoting its own assessment:
"We need to address years of uneven progress and siloed development in individual departments which have led to varying levels of digital maturity across government. We need to deal with the costly issue of legacy IT that has been allowed to build up over multiple financial cycles and is now a barrier to the delivery of great policy and services. We need to address the skills gap that we see at all levels of the civil service and compete more effectively with the private sector for skills, or our lack of skills will continue to hold us back and prevent us achieving our ambitions."
"The creation of the CDDO has marked a new era of digital transformation in government, a hallmark of which is true collaboration and permanent secretary leadership for the digital agenda on a scale never seen before."
Sceptics will express doubts. Optimists will be enthusiastic. The rest of us will reserve judgment, hopeful that this time, the government gets it right.
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