The government has not made the most of the opportunities offered by digital and needs to significantly improve leadership or risk ending up with poor quality services and wasted investment, a report has said.
The paper, published recently by the Institute for Government, suggested that the government could save between £1.3bn and £2bn by 2020 if it were to make a success of digital technologies.
The government, the report said, is struggling to progress from the first phase of digital transformation to the large-scale changes required, which will mean changing civil servants’ attitude to digital, ensuring that policy teams work better with those working on digital transformation, and that the concept is embraced by leaders across government – not just in IT teams.
"We have reached a tipping point. If the leadership does not emerge to drive the changes, there is a risk that digital teams will continue to be viewed as website designers, brought in only at the very end of policy design processes," the report said.
"There is a risk that insufficient investment will be made in the capabilities needed to build new services, leading to poor quality; or to manage the newly in-house IT infrastructure, leading to failure."
The report sets out a series of challenges and recommendations for Theresa May and her government to overcome if it wants the UK to realise the potential of digital for public services.
This includes making policy teams work better with digital projects, with the report saying that digital has not been immune to Whitehall’s long-standing tradition of ”making policy without sufficient attention being given to the practicalities of implementation”.
The report said that the adaptive approach offered by agile working practices could go some way towards addressing this, but only if they are brought in early on.
However, this sort of change will require more than this new operating model for policy development – the report stressed that it would also require ministers to embrace “a new kind of conversation” about policy that is based on prototypes as well as submissions.
This relates to another major challenge the report identifies for digital government: the need to expand strong digital leadership from being the remit of the digital and technology teams to something that all senior civil servants are engaged with.
One aspect of this will be pushing departments to understand the benefits of digital methods such as agile working – where small releases are made and constantly iterated – over waterfall approaches that progress in a linear fashion and can leave services locked-in to unsuitable designs.
At the same time, the report said that digital teams must recognise that some aspects of project management still need use traditional governance, especially when the digital project is part of a wider transformation programme.
The challenge for government departments, the report said, is to find the right trade-off that balances the flexibility of agile working with the government’s need to meet certain deadlines.
There is also a need for government to focus on improving its legacy systems, which are "slow, keep data fragmented and prevent services from being joined up", and that it has so far caused many new services to be built on top of existing legacy IT. This means government is "only able to realise a small part – better online customer interaction for existing services – of what digital has to offer", the report said.
"There are risks in changing systems, but it is a necessary step towards digital government," it said.
Another challenge government faces is that many of the skills needed for good digital government are in high demand across the private sector, which makes attracting and retaining staff difficult.
“The frustration of trying to recruit digital staff was evident in almost every interview we conducted,” the report authors said.
The biggest barrier was external labour market conditions, such as pay structures, but other issues identified include a perceived lack of career progression, an over-reliance on temporary staff and departments trying to “poach” digital leaders from each other.