Breaking down barriers: how Whitehall can make better use of technology

Written by Colin Marrs on 10 November 2017 in Feature
Feature

Civil Service World brought together a panel of digital leaders to assess how government can make better use of the technology at its disposal to drive innovation in public service delivery. Colin Marrs reports

 

In a recent report, the Institute for Government concluded that the spread of new digital services for the public had been slower than planned. “Departments resent interference and resist new ways of working,” the report said.

The pressure on Whitehall to innovate is growing, but departments risk being held back by a range of barriers. Civil Service World, in partnership with software and technology services provider Civica, gathered a group of experts to discuss how the civil service can transform public services by harnessing the technological revolution at its fingertips.

Challenges

The current appetite for digital transformation in government is often tempered by a fear of failure, according Joan Ogbebor, improvement programme manager at the Home Office. She told the group: “Government strategy tells us we need to do this and that, but culturally there is still some way to go.” Alex Lubbock, head of digital construction at the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, said that this legacy was a result of past “missed opportunities and expensive errors” affecting digital projects.


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Comprehending the potential of digital to transform services is not always easy for decision-makers. Government can still struggle to make the leap of imagination from merely digitising existing legacy processes to using technology to completely reimagine those systems. “We try to change our systems so that they actually meet the digital environment,” said Michelle Toogood, design lead at HM Revenue and Customs. “It is difficult when you have a tax system that goes back hundreds of years, but it is something that we are striving to do.”

Recently, some parts of Whitehall have been moving towards outcomes-based procurement. But even when this results in a successful contract award, the technology adopted can, itself, eventually become its own barrier to innovation, according to Julian Prout, sales manager at Civica Digital. “Aligning the procurement to outcomes rather than the delivery of technology is a way of driving innovation,” he said. “But when it comes to the next stage of the transformation journey, suppliers are then constrained by the technology choices of the past, which can hold back innovation. So it’s a difficult balance between using what’s already been invested in and innovating to do things differently.”

“If you start from a greenfield site, you can quickly build something, tweak it and then move onto something different. That is great, but government is reliant on a huge amount of interdependencies and legislative requirements, which makes it a challenge”
Chris Doutney, Civica Digital

Other innovations, such as the government’s e-procurement portal the Digital Marketplace, bring more challenges. Prout commented that the sheer number of suppliers on the marketplace makes pre-procurement engagement a challenge for government officials. “The more time you spend with the right suppliers, the more likely you are to get the right outcome. Yet with 2,000 suppliers on there, with varying experience and offerings, how do you know who to engage with? You can’t possibly pre-engage with all of them,” he said.

As in many policy areas, the merry-go-round of civil servants moving to new roles can also hinder good procurement. Lubbock said that digital programmes can suffer as much from changes at Treasury-approval level as those within the team delivering a particular programme. “Having to rearticulate the digital opportunity on a specific programme of work is not an easy thing,” he added.

For the teams working on projects, the nature of Whitehall departments and professions can also make it frustratingly hard to find and benefit from shared knowledge. “The knowledge-management silos are set up around various professions,” said Lubbock. “You will only will get a small percentage of people who would look across a number of those things, but they might only pick a handful of those areas rather than them all.”

Role of GDS

Since its formation in 2011, the Government Digital Service has attempted to bring more cohesion to departmental digital initiatives. But the Cabinet Office unit – under its current remit – is hamstrung when it comes to solving all of the issues identified by the round table participants, Lubbock said. “GDS, to me, are thinking about the infrastructure backbone, the common architecture and the common things and the governance. They don’t have capability to consider optimisation, performance, project administering at the customer-focused end, which sits within the departments.”

GDS has also encouraged a rejection of old “waterfall” approaches to digital development programmes in government, in favour of “agile” techniques. These involve incremental, iterative work to adapt requirements through the life of a project. While the group agreed that this was appropriate in some cases, there was a feeling that agile is more difficult to implement in the public sector than in a private enterprise.

“Agile started life in digital start-ups,” said Chris Doutney, managing director at Civica Digital. “If you start from a greenfield site, you can quickly build something, see how it works, tweak it and then move onto something different. That is great, but government is reliant on a huge amount of interdependencies and legislative requirements, which makes it a challenge.”

What does a good private sector partner look like?

The relationship between government and its suppliers is crucial and works best when it is symbiotic rather than adversarial, participants agreed. “I think the importance is growing of suppliers that can help us be efficient, have the value for money to deliver our mandate but also point us in the direction of where we should be looking in terms of providing future-proof systems,” Toogood said.

The best suppliers work in partnership with government to think differently about the problems they are trying to solve, according to Paul Bradbury, group business development director at Civica. “One of the challenges is that when you talk to public sector commissioners of projects, they have already put some paradigms in their mind about how it is going to be,” he said. “We have said, ‘Actually, do you know you can do this entirely differently by taking a step back and asking what outcomes you want to achieve?’”

For Ogbebor, a good supplier is “one that thinks in line with our vision and one that is not doing it for themselves but doing it for the good of what government is all about”. While Lubbock pointed out that this can be complicated by PLCs’ responsibilities to shareholders, Bradbury reiterated the importance of building long-term relationships between government and suppliers. “It is about customer intimacy but also about the long term. We want to build relationships not for today or tomorrow, but for the next five or 10 years.”

What does a good digital leader look like?

A number of examples of good leadership already exist within Whitehall, the group heard. Jon Thompson, chief executive and permanent secretary at HM Revenue and Customs was singled out for praise by participants for his work transforming departmental culture and making it open to change and innovation, both at HMRC and in his previous department, the Ministry of Defence. “There are certainly plenty of senior people within HMRC that are completely clued into digital,” said Toogood.

To achieve success, civil servants in the most senior roles do not necessarily need a detailed grip of the nitty-gritty of digital technology, the panel agreed. “John Manzoni [chief executive of the civil service and permanent secretary for the Cabinet Office] is the kind of person who is encouraging the people side of it, the enabling side of technology,” according to Ogbebor. “He might not necessarily know the full detail of different projects, but is very important in terms of the language and communication part of it.”

Having this kind of strategic oversight is one thing. But leading digital change in the civil service can be much tougher than in the private sector, Lubbock pointed out. “There are significantly more stakeholders, making it far harder to deal with than in the private sector – you have GDS, the Cabinet Office, the Treasury. All these parties have to be satisfied.” The best leaders, he said, are those who actively reach out to engage with others within government tackling similar problems.

Each step towards digital transformation government takes, the more it discovers – even the most bruising project failures have proved helpful in refining Whitehall’s approach. The key to success, the panel agreed, is engagement. Only the nurturing of good and sustainable relationships within departments, between departments, and with private sector partners, will allow the barriers to success to be hurdled.

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