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The UK government has announced its new digital strategy, promising to deliver over £1bn of savings by 2025 alongside “significant improvements” in online public services.
The much-delayed plan – originally due in autumn 2020, then postponed to 2021 as a result of the pandemic – covers mostly familiar ground to previous Whitehall digital roadmaps.
It includes six “missions” – the transformation of public services, better use of data, improving digital skills across the civil service, “secure, efficient and sustainable” use of technology, a cross-government digital identity platform, and “a system that unlocks digital transformation”.
The three-year roadmap, produced by the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), which was set up early in 2021 to drive forward on digital government plans, identifies 75 top public services, and aims to improve at least 50 of these to a “great standard” based on “a consistent measure of service performance”.
“We must deliver policy that has a real impact on people’s lives – not just in a crisis, but every day and for everyone,” said the minister responsible for digital government, Heather Wheeler, parliamentary under-secretary in the Cabinet Office.
“When people order their groceries, book a holiday or check their bank accounts, they expect and receive a seamless and easy experience. The same should be true of government services.”
Paul Willmott, executive chair of the CDDO, added that delivering the strategy would “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 underpinned by real, tangible commitments and actions, to be delivered by all government departments,” he said.
UK government’s digital strategy
Thousands of civil servants will be sent on “digital bootcamps”, with a target of equipping more than 6,500 senior staff with “essential” digital skills by 2025.
According to a government statement, the claimed savings of more than £1bn will come from better service delivery and the replacement of outdated IT systems, with the adoption of a “build once, use many times” policy helping to reduce duplication of spend across government. The plan will also help to support prime minister Boris Johnson’s intention to reduce civil servant headcount to 2016 levels – the equivalent of 91,000 job cuts.
“Leveraging the power of digital and data will make government more efficient and sustainable, with less duplication and waste. Processes and systems will run more efficiently and policy and programmes will be delivered with greater precision and impact,” said the strategy document.
The previous government digital strategy was launched in 2017, and promised to “take digital transformation further than ever before” by prioritising an overhaul of the civil service, developing skills and culture, using shared platforms, changing back-office processes and systems, and increasing collaboration.
The then-Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer said at the time of the launch that the 2017 strategy would “reshape government by ensuring millions of people are able to access the online services they need, whenever they need”, adding that he wanted to see “a revolution in the way we deliver public services so that people up and down our country feel that government is at their service at every single stage in the journey”.
The new strategy contains similar promises but acknowledges the scale of what still needs to be achieved.
“We have significant challenges to overcome. We need to address years of uneven progress and siloed development in individual departments which have led to varying levels of digital maturity across government. We need to deal with the costly issue of legacy IT that has been allowed to build up over multiple financial cycles and is now a barrier to the delivery of great policy and services”, said the document.
“We need to address the skills gap that we see at all levels of the civil service and compete more effectively with the private sector for skills, or our lack of skills will continue to hold us back and prevent us achieving our ambitions.”
Each of the six “missions” is sponsored by a senior civil servant at permanent secretary level – rather than by senior digital leaders. For example, the £400m One Login digital identity platform, which is already being developed to replace the failed Gov.uk Verify system, is sponsored by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) permanent secretary Jim Harra.
UK government’s digital strategy
HMRC had historically been resistant to using Verify, preferring its own Government Gateway system. However, under the new plan, Harra is responsible for ensuring that all Whitehall departments have an adoption strategy and roadmap for One Login by April 2023.
Progress on the digital strategy will be overseen by a Digital and Data Board, composed of permanent secretaries supported by a dedicated steering group of senior civil servants, including digital, data and technology leaders from across government.
The roadmap will be broken down into quantifiable, department-level targets against which progress will be measured, said the strategy document. Quarterly reviews, chaired by the CDDO and HM Treasury, will track progress and address any issues.
“We must drive value for money to the taxpayer, by transforming our ways of working to enable the civil service to work smarter and faster and deliver on our ambitions for widespread digital transformation,” said Wheeler.