Digital’s vital role in public services ‘more recognised post-COVID’, says senior UK official

By on 29/04/2022 | Updated on 11/05/2022
Joanna Davinson

The UK government has a renewed appreciation of the need for digital transformation following the coronavirus pandemic, one of the civil service’s most senior technology figures has told Global Government Forum.

Speaking at the launch of the UK government’s Digital, Data and Technology Playbook, which has been developed to introduce a common procurement process for technology across the UK public sector, Joanna Davinson, the executive director of the Cabinet Office’s Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), said there was increased recognition of the need for technology to be supported in government.

Asked by Global Government Forum what lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic had informed the playbook, Davinson said: “I think there is an awareness – actually more than that, an understanding – at senior levels in government and in Treasury around the need to use digital, data, and technology capabilities, and an understanding that it’s not a kind of a back office, enabling thing any more [but] is actually core delivery channel”.

Many areas of the government’s response to the pandemic had been facilitated by technology, and Davinson said “there’s an understanding that it’s much, much more central to the delivery of public services than perhaps people understood before.”

She said there was also an enhanced understanding that those in government “can’t work in silos anymore”, adding that “a lesson of the pandemic” was the need to collaborate across government.

Elsewhere in the session that took place earlier this month, Davinson also highlighted that CDDO is working closely with the Treasury to review how central approval for digital projects is provided.

The playbook called on public sector organisations to adopt agile development for digital and technology projects – taking an iterative approach to development that sets clear and measurable outcomes at the outset of a project that are tested through approval stages. This is intended to improve progress towards an appropriate solution, and public bodies are urged to have “consistent, transparent, proportional and streamlined processes to enable effective decision making”.

To achieve this, the playbook said approvals and governance should be shaped in a way that is focused on user needs and conducive to innovation and testing and learning, and not leave projects dependent on a so-called waterfall project management techniques of a linear progression from beginning to end of a project

Although the playbook has stated that the Treasury’s guidance for project approvals, known as the Green Book, “can enable an agile approach to development”, the playbook also acknowledged that “we are not always successful at doing this in practice, particularly where the detailed requirements are unclear, but the desired outcome is known”.

Asked if the Treasury was therefore “bought into” making the changes to the approval and funding that would incentivise such changes and help departments work together, Davinson said that there is an understanding of the need for change.

“I think there’s an understanding that that is needed. There’s certainly an understanding amongst the digital communities across government, and there is an understanding within Treasury to move and change. We are working quite proactively with Treasury on what and how and what timeframe.

“It’s quite hard, because the current Managing Public Money [guidance] and the way in which the funding models is very, very deeply embedded in the way in which government does business, but there is an understanding – certainly from a digital, data and technology perspective – that we need to shift our approach, so that it better supports product and service-centric ways of working, and we’re drawing comparison with how that has happened in the private sector.

“That’s quite a major transformation, but I think we’re at the point of understanding that something needs to change – and even an understanding of some of the ‘what’ that needs to change, but we are still working on the ‘how’.”

Gareth Rhys Williams, the government chief commercial officer, told the session launching the playbook held at TechUK that the “machine of government” picked up some agile working processes in the COVID-19 response, including in procurement of ventilators.

“The idea that we will try something with best efforts, and if it doesn’t work we modify it and move on – and do it quickly. Acceptance of that [approach] has been built up.”

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Existing systems ‘poorly suited to the requirements of digital technologies’, digital leaders tell GGF

Revising government-wide project funding, approval, governance and procurement processes was one of the key recommendations of Global Government Forum’s Digital Leaders report published earlier this year, which found that existing systems “are often poorly suited to the requirements of digital technologies, undermining delivery”.

Through in-depth interviews with seven national digital leaders, report author Kevin Cunnington, former head of the UK’s Government Digital Service, found that business planning and budget approval systems typically require detailed plans of the final system before money is released, pushing project managers away from agile delivery back towards inappropriate waterfall project management techniques.

“Agile is butting up against the architecture of the finance arrangements in our country – so the business case rules have been predicated on waterfall methodologies and large-scale capital investments around people or property,” commented one interviewee. “An agile methodology is a poor fit with how you get money.” Another noted that “there isn’t a lot of incentive to start small and learn as you go. There’s a lot of incentive to get the big blast of funding first – then the people who want that money swoop in. The rush to spend can push business owners into dependence on consultancies, and incentivise them to quickly purchase of off-the-shelf systems rather than undertake slower but more thorough business process transformations.”

The report recommended that to realise the potential of digital technologies, national leaders must ensure that these cross-government systems – which lie outside digital leaders’ control, in fields such as finance, commercial, project management and legal – evolve to meet today’s goals, opportunities and risks.

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About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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