AccelerateGov: the digital goal for governments is clear, but the match is not yet won

By on 06/10/2022 | Updated on 07/10/2022
L-R: Christina Lang, Megan Lee, and Siobhan Benita. Lee said that all UK policy professionals will soon have "an expected minimum level of understanding on digital and data”. Photo by Matt Ross

Digital technologies demonstrated their potential during the pandemic, said panellists at the global AccelerateGov conference yesterday – but to realise that potential, further big changes are required. Matt Ross reports

“Tech vendors and consultants and researchers always think more data is better; more interconnection is better; joined up is better,” said Michael Wernick. “But the politicians will be very influenced by countervailing issues around privacy, around data breaches. They will be scared: a data breach can be a career-ending move for a minister or deputy minister. And the chill around project failures is enormous: they don’t want one on their watch. So the easy thing to do is to slow down. Under any pressure from the opposition or the media, the instinct of the government of the day – whoever they are – is to retreat.”

Speaking on Wednesday at Global Government Forum’s AccelerateGov conference, Wernick – a former clerk of Canada’s Privy Council and secretary to the cabinet, now working as a senior strategic advisor associate for MNP Digital – emphasised that elected leaders’ concerns are valid. “The risks around privacy and cybersecurity and foreign interference are legitimate things for them to worry about,” he noted.

Commenting during the conference’s panel session on ‘the role of digital and data in policymaking’, he also highlighted the dangers in leaning too heavily on datasets that may not be able to bear the weight. Public servants must be “very rigorous in thinking about the bias in the data, and the data that’s not there: who’s not being captured by your datasets?” he said. “Beware of what I call ‘policy-based evidence’ and of confirmation bias: people see what they want to see, and you have to be very rigorous in correcting for that”.

Read more: Pick up the pace: CIO Catherine Luelo on accelerating Canada’s digital journey

Yet despite these risks, Wernick is a champion of digital transformation – and COVID-19, he noted, has changed the game. “Everybody’s seen disruption or acceleration because of the pandemic experience,” he told the 400-strong audience in Ottawa, Canada. And while many digital leaders have focused on the rapid establishment of new, high-volume digital services – such as those used to distribute funds to people and businesses – Wernick has spotted a deeper shift.

“The most interesting changes underway in Canada are probably not the transactional website services, but what happened in some of the most change-resistant organisational systems: school boards, universities, courts,” he said. “Those kinds of things have guilds, have unions, have real points of resistance. And we saw people there thinking about problems in new ways. Why do I have to print out a form? Why do I have to go in person and do that?”

Patchy progress

Megan Lee, chief strategy and transformation officer at the UK’s Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), has been working to harness that attitudinal shift – recruiting senior leaders and non-digital professionals to the cause of transformation. The pandemic has indeed prompted rapid advances in some fields of digital services, she commented; but many areas remain well behind the times.

“We know that that government isn’t designed to build policy fit for a digital age, and that processes and governance approaches get in the way,” she said. So CDDO has an active programme of system reform, addressing questions such as: “How do we embed digital early on in the policy development process? And how do we also make sure that our finance approaches, our approach to risk and so on, take into consideration factors around digital?”

Read more: Global report reveals senior officials lack understanding to drive digital transformation of government

Launched in June, the CDDO’s 2022-25 digital roadmap is, said Lee, about “moving away from just having pockets of brilliance across government, to doing more enduring transformation”. The roadmap is, she explained, the result of an “intense negotiation” with departmental permanent secretaries, who co-authored the report, each taking responsibility for one of its agendas. That “enabled us to make sure we have the right buy in and the right support from leaders,” commented Lee, along with “the right financial backing behind the commitments”. Delivery is now being overseen by a digital and data board, also populated by departmental leaders.

One core goal of the strategy, she explained, is to strengthen digital understanding and expertise among three key groups: departmental leaders and senior civil servants; the UK government’s 23,500 digital and data professionals; and non-digital professionals, particularly policymakers. “There are half a million people that work for the UK civil service, and we don’t think that enough of them have sufficient levels of understanding of digital and data to inform policymaking and service design,” she said. “We’re working on addressing that now.”

L-R: Tuula Lybeck; Michael Wernick; Christina Lang; Megan Lee; Siobhan Benita. Photo by Matt Ross

So a new ‘digital and data essentials’ course is, Lee said, helping “leaders to understand what it takes to design policies fit for digital age, and to design services that are usable and efficient”: the roadmap includes a pledge to train 90% of senior civil servants in these topics by 2025.

Digital and data staff are meanwhile benefiting from strengthened “strategic workforce planning,” with CDDO staff “understanding the skills needed in the future, and working backwards from that”. And the digital and data essentials course is, Lee explained, providing “the basis of a core curriculum that we’re embedding in the capability frameworks of other professions across government”. This will soon ensure that “all policy professionals have an expected minimum level of understanding on digital and data,” she added. “And we’re now doing that with other professionals as well, working with commercial, finance and beyond”.

Don’t fight the law

Another key group to involve in digital programmes are the legislative teams, whose work is often crucial in shaping how digital services must operate. And Christina Lang, chief executive officer of Germany’s Digital Service, explained how her staff have helped to develop a “digital readiness check” that can be applied to new bills.

There is, she emphasised, “no one-size-fits-all checklist”: instead, the team has been “developing principles: the cornerstones of what makes legislation digital-ready. Based on them, we want to develop methods and approaches that are targeted towards public sector decision-makers”. These will in turn inform the production of a set of “guiding questions that public servants can use in their daily work”.

Read more: The power of data in digital transformation: Inland Revenue New Zealand shares its experience

The process of developing these principles has, Lang said, clearly demonstrated that “working in interdisciplinary teams provides better results. The fact that we have been working with a task force set up across government ­– so from different agencies and ministries – has been enormously helpful in gathering feedback and evidence, based on what’s currently working well and what isn’t in the policymaking and the legislative processes”.

Equally valuable, she said, has been the team’s incremental approach to developing these principles. “Iterating in this process is critical; crucial to success,” she commented. The first draft of the legislative digital readiness check will be up and running by the end of the year, said Lang, “so we will check first policies, regulations, bills that are being designed or created in the new year, and we will iterate on the checklist, on the principles, to optimise this framework”.

A lasting legacy

Lee too has learned a lot in recent months – and, more broadly, since the start of the pandemic. “COVID did teach us a number of things, and I think there are three enduring benefits,” she commented.

“One is the expectation of ministers and senior leaders that data be used on a daily basis to inform decisions, which is obviously hugely valuable and has enabled us to build on that,” she said. The CDDO has now “launched a data master class for our civil servants and our ministers; many of our ministers have now taken it, to understand how to lead organisations better using data”.

“The second change is in expectations around the pace of standing up new services,” she continued. “Most of our services were stood up in weeks during the pandemic; it used to be months. And that has been a huge sort of branding advantage for us in the digital function”: in essence, digital professionals demonstrated how much they could achieve in the face of a national crisis – and how quickly.

Finally, those achievements have shown the value of interdepartmental collaboration: teamworking between the tax office and the health department, for example, enabled officials to identify people with caring responsibilities and prioritise them for COVID vaccinations. Such projects would “previously have faced quite a lot of legislative blockers, cultural blockers; we were able to cut through that in the pandemic,” Lee said.

As chair Siobhan Benita drew the session to a close, however, Lee added a caveat to this tale of opportunities realised. “Has the pandemic addressed a lot of the fundamental challenges we face to achieving enduring transformation? It has not,” she said. “The reality is that we still have 4,500 vacancies in the UK government in our digital function; attracting and retaining great digital talent is still a real challenge for us. Has it fixed a lot of our services? Obviously not.”

So there are lessons to learn from the pandemic and the response of digital professionals, said Lee – but it’s crucial that digital and organisational leaders continue to push hard, developing the skills, infrastructure and policies that will support a wider and deeper shift to digital. The CDDO, she concluded, is not focused on “those pockets of progress – those examples of where we’ve risen up in times of crisis and delivered – but on how we achieve that enduring transformation to the way that we do business as government: the way we deliver policy, support the half a million people that work for us, and deliver 7,500 services to the public”.

AcclerateGov was held in Ottawa, Canada, on Wednesday 5 October, and featured many of the national digital leaders assembled for the following day’s Government Digital Summit.

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About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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