Doug Drinkwater
UK Editor

UK’s new digital strategy promises change – will it deliver?

News Analysis
Jun 14, 2022
Government IT

A new government digital strategy promises to deliver better citizen experiences, improved accessibility, shared data between central departments, and to upskill civil servants. But haven’t we heard this all before?

UK Parliament and Big Ben with data points
Credit: IR Stone / Shutterstock

The UK Central Data and Digital Office (CDDO) has unveiled the Transforming for a Digital Future strategy, which sets out a collective cross-government roadmap and vision for 2025.

The strategy outlines six core missions with the ultimate goal of delivering better and simpler citizen experiences, more value to the taxpayer, and greater public sector efficiency and security. The missions, each sponsored at permanent secretary level, are in summary:

1. Transformed public services that achieve the right outcomes

This mission is about creating government services “as accessible as the services to do your shopping or access your bank account,” Joanna Davinson, outgoing executive director of the CDDO, said at an event in Whitehall in June.

As part of this mission, there’s a commitment that at least 50 of the government’s top 75 identified services across 14 departments will move to a “great” standard by 2025, against a “consistent measure of service performance”, although precisely how that will be measured has not been released.

For key government priorities, the government will look to embed ‘digital approaches and cross-functional teams into policy design and delivery.’

2. One Login for government

All central government departments will confirm an adoption strategy and roadmap for the new One Login programme by April 2023, and their services will have begun onboarding by 2025, according to Natalie Jones, director of digital identity at the Government Digital Service (GDS).

The first step would be to release a photo ID application on iOS and Android built in partnership with HMRC and using facial recognition to verify the identity through smartphone and driving license. The application will launch later this year, with additional functionality to sign-in with passport and resident permits expected to be phased in around the same time.

One Login would replace the 180 different accounts and 44 different sign-on methods you would theoretically need to access all government services.  

3. Better data to power decision making

Sponsored by Sir Ian Diamond, CEO of the National Statistics Authority, the third mission details a desire to make all critical data assets available and in use across government through APIs and platforms such as GDX and IDS, to have access to a common Data Marketplace, and agree to co-develop and adopt a single data ownership model for critical data assets.

The mission also sets forward a target of 50% of high-priority data quality issues to be resolved within a period defined by a cross-government framework.

4. Secure, efficient, and sustainable technology

Whitehall has expressed a desire to move to a buy once, use many times approach to technology as well as ensuring that nationally important systems are resilience tested annually. These systems will also be hosted – or are planned to be hosted – in appropriate environments aligned to the cross-government cloud and technology infrastructure strategy.

There is also a renewed focus on new services being Secure By Design, on having remediation plans in place for legacy systems and a push on government departments to increase sustainability through the lifecycle of their technology and services. The mission also suggests the imminent launch of a new mobile application strategy.

5. Digital skills at scale

Departments with upskilling over 90% of senior civil servants on digital and data essentials, training over 90% DDaT professionals on DDaT-related training once a year and – perhaps crucially given the current recruitment market – to reduce digital and data vacancies to under 10% of the total DDaT headcount.

There’s also a commitment to ‘reflect the diversity of the UK population’ through the DDaT workforce, and to align role definitions to the DDaT capability and pay frameworks – which hopes to reduce average time to hire to 30 days.

6. A system that unlocks digital transformation

The CDDO says it will work with HMT, finance, commercial and IPA to address systemic barriers to digital transformation, including financial processes, business case and impact tracking challenges.

The Cabinet Office body says departments must meet the definition of good for product-centric organisational structures and agile ways of working when self-assessed against the new Digital, Data and Technology Functional Standard.

An “ambitious statement of intent”

Civil servants delivering the strategy offered plenty of promises of what the new roadmap will deliver for citizens, civil servants, and the wider HMG, from improving collaboration between government departments and enhanced user accessibility, through to better data sharing, upskilling civil servants on digital, and saving up to £1 billion through improved service delivery and replacing outdated technology over the next three years.

CDDO representatives said that the strategy will align with government departments’ own digital transformation strategies, and that CDO and CTO networks throughout Whitehall were consulted throughout its development. Progress is expected to be overseen by a digital and data board, comprising permanent secretaries and leading digital, data and technology leaders across government. They will report on progress, as well as monitor efficiency savings, every six months.

During the announcement, there was at least some acknowledgement that this is by no means the UK government’s first rodeo when it comes to digital strategy, and an appreciation that previous iterations have occasionally underwhelmed.

There was a candidness too that while the government has come a long way over the last decade, particularly in relation to advancing the DDaT profession and delivering better digital services, there remain formidable barriers to digital government. Services are often slow, difficult to use and expensive to deliver, departments offer multiple digital identity solutions, data quality is inconsistent, while central government is reliant on costly and dated technology. The same bodies are also failing to attract top digital talent.

Some of this may explain why the previous NAO report in 2021 indicated that previous attempts at government-wide digital transformation had mixed success, with former strategies lacking specificity, cross-government endorsement, and clear lines of accountability and ownership.

“People expect government services to be as good as the best online experiences in the private sector,” Paul Willmott, executive chair of the CDDO, said in his opening comments. “Rising to meet these expectations will require change on a scale that government has never undertaken before.”

“This roadmap is an ambitious statement of intent. It represents a new era of collaboration on digital transformation and marks a step-change in the digital and data agenda. Written collaboratively, it sets out a collective vision under-pinned by real, tangible commitments and actions, to be delivered by all government departments.”

Reaction to the UK’s new digital strategy

Transforming for a Digital Future follows closely in the footsteps of the UK’s previous digital strategy in 2017 that promised to overhaul the civil service, developing skills and culture, using shared platforms, changing back-office processes and systems, and increasing collaboration – focusing in particular on the now soon-to-be retired Gov.UK Verify authentication programme, and adding new services to Gov.UK Pay and Notify.

The new strategy appears to cover similar ground as its predecessor, and some may argue there’s a misalignment between expectation and reality. For instance, in the latest version, the government intends to upskill senior civil servants on digital and data essentials, provide DDaT training, reduce vacancies and improve diversity. But that would seemingly fly in the face of recent commitments to shed 91,000 civil service jobs, cancel the Fast Stream apprenticeship scheme, and put pressure on digital, data, and technology leaders to make do with existing resources and talent shortages.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Transforming for a Digital Culture drew a lukewarm reaction from industry observers.

Heather Cover-Kus, head of central government, techUK said: “The Government’s Data and Digital Strategy speaks to the critical importance of technology in delivering modern, effective, and customer-centred public services. The technology industry is excited by this ambitious strategy and is ready to support its delivery and implementation.”

John Fenwick, AWE CTO, added that the strategy rightly recognises the growing requirements around digital skills and talent, and particularly need for new education pathways to be developed, but cannot forget the people who are in work today.

“It is important that we don’t leave people behind who are facing digital disruption in their roles on a daily basis. They are the people who understand the domains they work within. This domain knowledge and the digital skills are equally important for digital to be applied correctly and successfully.”

Jos Creese, CEO and founder of digital and IT planning outfit Creese Consulting Ltd., was less convinced, calling the strategy “good in parts”.

“As ever, the strategy is strong and shows good vision,” he said. “But delivery depends on addressing engrained governance, structure, politics, and resource models.”

Alex Case, a former senior civil servant at 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, now the senior director and public sector industry principal at Pegasystems, said the strategy was a “very encouraging statement of the future direction and objectives” for government but believes there remains a disconnect between Agile approaches being followed by government project teams, and the nature of project approval, which is typically more Waterfall-like.

“For Agile to be successfully utilised in government a fundamental rethink of all that sits around it is required. This strategy will hopefully start that process, but time (and delivery) will tell if it completes it.”

Alan Calder, CEO of GRC International Group, a provider of IT governance solutions, said the strategy “mostly involves throwing more people and governance processes at a top-down approach”.

“Top-down approaches to technology transformation unfortunately do not work, no matter how much governance is put in place. What the Minister should do, is to enable bottom-up development of solutions to genuine problems, within a clear technical architecture. I suspect that the next NAO review of the strategy will conclude that not much has changed in terms of results.