Digital transformation is the buzz phrase of the moment – the only way to stay relevant in 2017. In January 2013, the government gave itself 400 days to transform 25 major services, making them simpler, clearer and faster to use. Fast forward to February 2017 and the priority is even more ambitious – to change the culture and ways of working of the public sector. With technology as an enabler.
Truly transforming government through the power of digital technologies will inevitably take time.
Over the last three years we have surveyed nearly 4,500 civil servants from across Whitehall and beyond. Increasing numbers of civil servants have told us that digital is having an impact on their work.
So by 2017, 88% of civil servants were directly experiencing the changes produced by technology and new ways of working (an increase of nearly 20 percentage points since 2015).
How do civil servants understand and experience digital transformation?
Transformation is needed to keep up with changing user demands. And technology is delivering more efficient and effective operating models. These changes are well understood by civil servants, who told us that digital meant, beyond anything else, the restructuring of the way that public services are delivered. In previous years channel shift and improving online services were the most prominent descriptions (reflecting the emphasis then placed on digital by default).
This pace of change can be threatening, especially when the civil service is far smaller than in 2010 (there has been a reduction of around 19% in just seven years). However. three quarters of the civil servants we surveyed said digital ways of working were having a positive impact on them and an even more positive impact on the citizens they serve (a response that has remained relatively stable over the last three years).
What conditions must exist to achieve digital transformation?
Technology is an enabler of transformation. Technology is not the outcome. It is a component of change that must be exploited. Transformation of government requires senior civil service buy in. But you also need adequate resourcing and teams with the skills to set and keep the pace.
Lack of resources and skills have consistently been identified by civil servants over the last three years as the most significant barriers to transformation.
The government has plans to attract, recruit and retain specialists in an increasingly competitive marketplace, through improvements to career paths and reward structures, new learning and development programmes and a data science campus and accelerator programme. But there is significant room for improvement.
In 2017, 62% of civil servants placed lack of training for staff among the top three barriers to change.
Civil servants called out acute needs for service design, agile delivery and user research skills. And nearly half – 43% of respondents – told us that they personally had not received enough digital training to do their job well (an increase of 6 percentage points since 2015).
What will digital transformation look like over the next three years?
The last twelve months have seen a significant drop in the number of civil servants saying that new restructured services and online channels were live or about to go live (down 16 and 19 percentage points respectively). We do not see this as a negative finding. Rather there has been a recalibration in the way that civil servants think about digital transformation.
The ultimate objective of government is a more secure, coherent and agile government, able to reduce the costs of building, changing and running services.
Civil servants recognise that this requires deeper and far reaching organisational change and new operating models, budget structures and the end of siloed decision-making hierarchies. And this takes time.
In the coming weeks we will be going into more detail about the survey findings and giving our views on ways of addressing barriers to change. In the meantime, you can read more about the survey on our website. We also want to encourage a debate with civil servants and others with an interest in government.
Authored by Philip Craig