The ways citizens and governments interact has been transformed by the digital revolution. Public services have been shifted online and systems automated as the UK government has doubled down on its stated aim of ‘digital by default’.
However, the UK’s mission to escalate the digitalisation of government, which includes the online provision of a wide remit of public services (for example, claiming social security benefits, reporting a missed bin collection, or calculating your pension entitlement), met with barriers and unintended consequences. The annual GovICT conference identified a lack of digital capability alongside the complex range and fragmented adoption of technical solutions as key factors impeding progress.
With this in mind we ask two questions: do those charged with driving digital change in government understand new technologies and the wealth of opportunities they may present? And, how can we ensure that public service leaders procure and implement the ‘best’ solutions?
Our concept of a digital welfare ecosystem offers a useful means to map the key actors involved and better understand the rapidly evolving partnerships in the UK’s digital transformation journey.
How to achieve effective digital change with a digital skills deficit?
Now in its 19th year, the GovICT conference took place on the 31st January 2023 at the QEII centre London. Industry experts and digital change leaders from government departments and local council level shared their insights with the 450+ public sector attendees. The conference offered a window into discussions about digital capabilities, and the oversight and strategy needed to accelerate the pace and quality of the UK’s digital transformation.
Keynote speakers aptly described the difficulties faced in attempting to digitise how government interacts with its citizens.
NAO’s Digital Director, Yvonne Gallagher, gave an overview of their upcoming report: ‘Digital transformation in government: addressing the barriers to inefficiency‘. She described how big digital change across government remains impeded as the application of short term, quick solutions do not address the technical debt within existing systems. As a result, inefficiencies are magnified and opportunities to create transformational solutions are lost.
Others from local government described how limited resource was restricting development. The diversity of government services means work is siloed, further curtailing wholesale change. Supplementary infrastructure challenges, like the lack of a single user-ID, alongside the poor usability and quality of digital data, undermine the potential for improvement.
With these issues in mind, the Digital Director from the Department for International Trade, Jason Kitcat, was unequivocal in his summation of where the problem lies. He described a, ‘leadership challenge, not a technical challenge’. Leadership is critical to leverage change but a lack of digital capability at senior levels within government is impeding progress.
Given these leadership challenges, how can public sector organisations ensure digital transformation is good transformation? As Westerman from MIT Sloan has cautioned, “when digital transformation is done right, it’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, but when done wrong, all you have is a really fast caterpillar”.
As policymakers across Europe aim to harness the benefits of digitalisation, identifying and equipping the public sector with the requisite digital skill, foresight and applications to grasp the potential of technology is a critical first step.
How to prioritise development and choose the right tech?
In an effort to ensure government gets the most out of public sector contracting, changes were made to the Social Value Act in 2021. Contracts are assessed not only on value for money, but the wider positive benefits they can offer. Businesses are now required to deliver more on social value priorities. However, understanding what other factors shape demand is less clear.
Seeking to foster collaboration between the public sector and private companies in the tech space, GovICT provides an opportunity for buyers and suppliers to meet. As technological possibilities have grown increasingly complex, creating and consolidating relationships in this way has the potential to leverage change. Beyond the formal conference agenda, enticing exhibitor stands, abundant with freebies, afforded sponsors the opportunity to promote their digital solutions and pitch for contracts. Seminars provided forums to discuss topics such as: how public sector leaders should prioritise the development of their tech; how to maintain and get the most out of existing systems; and how to limit service costs.
GovICT was testament to the fragmented way these relationships are growing, seemingly without any central co-ordination or cohesive oversight.
As keynote panellists cautioned over rapid contracting and digital skill deficits, the wealth of overlapping technical solutions are exacerbating the dilemmas that decision makers face. Developing greater clarity about how priorities are determined and how choices are made will help to establish what makes a solution the ‘right’ solution.
Conceptualising the digitalisation of government as an ecosystem
The extent and pace of digital adoption is varied both within and between countries. The EUROSHIP project, currently underway at the Digit Centre, seeks to map this change process across seven country case studies. In each country, the same triad of actors—government, business, and third sector and community organisations—have interacted differently to create a unique ecosystem for digital transformation. GovICT, provided an opportunity to observe interactions between some of these key actors and gain clarity on how these partnerships have evolved within the UK.
By conceptualising the UK’s digital transformation journey as a digital welfare ecosystem of these key actors, policymakers can more readily understand the specific strategic, infrastructure, and capability challenges. By mapping how partnerships are forged and relationships develop we can observe the strengths and weaknesses of these ties.
This dynamic ecosystem perspective enables the identification of regional differences and trends associated with success or stagnation.
This ecosystem framework can help policymakers to facilitate greater communication between different partners and disseminate good practice. While attempts to accelerate the pace of digitalisation remain at the forefront of government strategy, policymakers must understand the strengths and frailties within the UK’s unique digital ecosystem in order to shape change and drive a transformational digital future.