Some thoughts about the Government Transformation Strategy 2017-2020

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By Dr Andy Hopkirk, Socitm Head of Research

We are four years on from the first Government Digital Service’s Government Digital Strategy of November 2012 and we now have GDS’s Government Transformation Strategy 20172020 just published (9 Feb 2017, http://bit.ly/2lnh1qV). What’s the difference between just more digital and transformation? And what does it look like meaning for Socitm members who are mostly in organisations outside Whitehall?

The 2012 digital strategy listed 11 ‘we will do this’ objectives. Six formed a group about developing people, skills, culture, new/better internal tools, processes and governance, supported by shared platforms, components and reusable business capabilities that would help these people make better use of data in decision making and day to day management tasks. The residual five were about increasing the ease and diversity of supply to government, improving the way that the government made policy and communicated with people, and making online services that people would want to use in growing numbers.

Coming forward to the 2017 document, we see bundles of broad objectives under five headings. Effectively, four of these encompass the group of six referred to above carried forward from 2012, i.e. covering: people, skills and culture; better tools, processes and governance for civil servants; better use of data, and; shared platforms, components and reusable business capabilities. No surprises there, for these can be said to be the fundamental constants in this space. The fifth heading, “Business transformation”, is new and it takes a different tack from the previous bundle of other objectives that were the “residual five” in the 2012 strategy referred to above.

The Introduction and Vision statements elaborate upon this business transformation. It is “transforming whole citizen-facing services”, “full department transformation – affecting complete organisations”, “internal government transformation”. The ambitions are to “transform the relationship between citizens and the state” and “transform government services and make government itself a digital organisation”.

This expansion of ambition is where the connection with Socitm members in local government comes in. For the “relationship between citizens and the state” is absolutely not always confined to and mediated by Whitehall departments and the services they provide. The new strategy’s vision statement isn’t merely, “transform[ing] part of the relationship between citizens and the state”. What are “whole citizen-facing services” and “full department transformation – affecting complete organisations” (note the plural), if this not, as Socitm would say, a necessary statement of intent to get out of the Whitehall box and start to engage with and tackle all of the inter-linked levels of government and public service delivery as one? If that’s true, then that would be truly transformational and not just criticisable relabeled business as usual with tweaks at the online margins.

Back in 2012, the GDS’s document said, “This strategy is just the beginning. We recognise that the changes required will be far from easy. Our existing processes and ways of working can get in the way, and many will need to change.” The 2017 strategy appears to be a logical extension of this. It’s making explicit that being/making ‘digital’ ultimately begs questions about re-engineering the ways everything gets done and why, inevitably touching upon all levels in the chain from voters electing national, devolved and local governments, through provision of the gamut of often inter-related public services, to precisely how those services are experienced by the customers/consumers who voted for the politicians and the taxes that pay for most of it.

Interesting times and big stuff, yes; but what do we see happening right now? There still seems to be an unhelpful and unnecessary distance between what is perceived to be the remits of central, local and what is personal to the citizen. In the health and social care arenas, for example, it still seems to be okay to use the plural “arenas” in discourse, for that is a reflection of untransformed organisational perspectives where my organisation does this and yours does that rather than we do this together for them (the latter which, don’t forget, includes ourselves outside our day jobs). Discourse is not yet routinely using the terminology of the end user citizen and their family members who just want prompt attention from public services when they need them and, in the case of health and social care as an example, a good, fair and seamless ‘cradle to grave experience’.

GDS representatives are out on the stomp now to publicise and engage more people in the latest vision and the strategy to achieve it. Having had the benefit of attending one of the roadshows recently in Newcastle, I liked a lot of what I saw and heard. This is a long game, people-centric culture development work, so one has to build slowly and steadily, keeping an eye on the long-term objectives, and cultivating the fundamental constants that underpin the ambitions. I particularly liked the plan to establish a number of, what I’d call, ‘franchises of the digital way’ in some of the Whitehall and devolved government department centres distributed around the UK. I’ll hesitate to say these would be ‘mini-GDSs’ for that would be to grossly misrepresent what they should be. They should become our readily accessible, local centres of knowledge and experience, and places where those with transformative responsibilities and ambitions from all levels of local and wider public service delivery can meet and share what’s working for us and our local (first) and wider (second) communities.

If you can make it along to one of the roadshows, I’d recommend you do to get some insight beyond reading the words on the pages of the strategy document. There’s upcoming events in Liverpool 1st March, Leeds 7th March, Glasgow 15th March, Birmingham 23rd March and Sheffield 29th March.

Some thoughts about the Government Transformation Strategy 2017-2020

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