The quest for efficiency through Digital in government is in a doom loop

Benjamin P. Taylor
4 min readSep 26, 2023

Join the discussion on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/posts/antlerboy_ive-been-asked-what-i-think-about-the-parliamentary-activity-7112322414293757952-PnT5?utm_source=share&utm_medium=member_desktop What’s one thing you’d like the government to change regarding ‘digital’?

We fail to invest properly and fail to situate ‘digital’ in the complexity of what government is actually about.

So we miss the real opportunity: effectiveness through a focus on citizen outcomes.

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Digital transformation in government: addressing the barriers to efficiency

This is the grand title of the UK Parliament ‘Committee of Public Accounts’ Seventieth Report of Session 2022–23, published recently.

Having shared it, I’ve been asked what I think of it.

When I set up the Public Service Transformation Academy (www.publicservicetransformation.org) in 2016, one of the meetings I managed to get — and one of my most coveted — was with the Government Digital Service — the famed GDS, who introduced agile and service design practices and who did such a wonderful job transforming the central government website.

It didn’t go well. They wanted to hear how my clients were seeing and prioritising ‘digital’.

‘Yes, oh yes, definitely’, I said. ‘It’s definitely in their sort of top twelve… well, top thirteen or fourteen priorities’. They simply found that very hard to comprehend, I think — they asked me what other priorities could possibly be?

Joining up on a place basis, “Brexit”, the crisis in social care and health, regeneration of the economy, housing housing housing… and so on.

So, to the report. Personally, I think the choice of ‘efficiency’, not effectiveness, is a bit of a giveaway. Dealing with understaffing / workforce development (and volume of ‘strategies’), and failure to address ‘legacy systems’ are bloody good points.

But in 2023 it’s just rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic until something very fundamental in UK government changes (likely the government itself — but not for another year or more).

Importantly, this is just central government — a bit limited, and very much a closed shop to large consultancies and certain types of ‘digital agencies’ (therefore not a space I’ve directly worked in with ‘digital’) — and it is not really connected in to any ‘overall transformation’, because UK government has, since 2010, retrenched back to ineffectual silos due to massive funding cuts.

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The report has just six core (sets of) recommendations:

1. Single service owners

Yes OK, but ‘outcome owners’ better — better silos isn’t the answer, ‘service delivery’ isn’t the right focus. (End-to-end full citizen transaction costings YES — been recommending this since 2013 — the committee hasn’t quite caught onto that actually, but baseline costs would be a start)

2. Think about wider redesign

Yes but this is unduly constrained by the focus on ‘digital’ only.

3. Leaders to understand digital and how it interacts with the complexities of government

Well, duh. (But it needs to go both ways — ‘digital’ NEDs without understanding of government will be equally unproductive)

4. Digital skills shortages

Yes. Formalise and mandate costing of opportunity cost of lack of this to Treasury — brilliant idea.

But if you pay Deputy Directors for Transformation, Innovation, Insights, Digital, Service Design… at £65–118k, forget it.

5. Treat Digital differently from things like physical infrastructure

Good

6. Stick to the roadmap (despite the accelerating breakdown of infrastructure and civil society)

Good luck!

If had my druthers (or any influence in the matter at all), I’d be tempted to encourage a new government to:

  • join up around an outcome focus bring back Public Service Outcome Agreements: contractual, incentivised departmental and devolved/local agreements to change real outcomes, and task the top level with carrying these out
  • heavily invest in digital skills and capability, not by bringing in ‘rock star’ digital folk, but by extensive bottom-up training and serious immersion for the most senior (and completely reform Civil Service training and incentives while we’re at it)
  • and then, get the ‘digital service’ folks doing what they do best by identifying the core transactional services that really should be run as services and with an ‘efficiency’ focus (like the old GDS cherry-picked priorities list) and give them all power to crack on
  • heavily invest in learning loops to reconsider the enterprise and knowledge management architecture of public services as a whole, starting from learning from the above three initiatives

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So, yeah… what’s one thing you’d like the government to change regarding ‘digital’?

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