Vital role of digital in public services ‘more recognized after COVID’

Joanna Davinson

The UK government has a new appreciation for the need for digital transformation in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, one of the most prominent civil service tech figures told the World 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, Executive Director of the Cabinet Office’s Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), said there was increased recognition of the need to support technology within government.

Asked by the World Government Forum about lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, Davinson said: “I think there is an awareness – in fact more than that, an understanding – at higher levels of government and of the Treasury around the need to use digital, data and technology capabilities, and an understanding that it’s no longer some kind of back office, enabling more things [but] is in fact the main distribution channel”.

Many areas of the government’s pandemic response have been aided by technology, and Davinson said “it’s understood that it’s much, much more central to the delivery of public services than maybe people don’t. thought so before”.

She said there was also a better understanding that members of government “can no longer work in silos”, adding that “one lesson of the pandemic” was the need to collaborate across government.

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

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

To achieve this, the playbook says that approvals and governance must be designed to be user-driven and conducive to innovation, testing and learning, and not leave projects dependent on this. so-called waterfall project management techniques of a linear progression from start to finish of a project

Although the playbook said that the Treasury’s guidelines for project approvals, known as the Green Book, “can enable an agile approach to development”, the playbook also acknowledged that “we don’t always get it right. in practice, especially when the detailed requirements are unclear, but the desired result is known”.

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

“I think there’s an understanding that it’s necessary. There’s certainly an understanding among digital communities across government, and there’s an understanding within Treasury to move and change. We are working quite proactively with the Treasury on what, how and in what time frame.

“It is quite difficult, because the current management of public money [guidance] and how funding models are very, very deeply embedded in the way government does business, but there’s an understanding – certainly from a digital, data and technology perspective – that we need to change our approach , so that it better supports product- and service-centric ways of working, and we draw a comparison with how this has happened in the private sector.

“It’s a pretty big transformation, but I think we’re on the verge of an understanding that something has to change – and even an understanding of some of the ‘what’ that has to change, but we’re still working on the ‘how’. ”

Gareth Rhys Williams, the government’s chief commercial officer, told the playbook launch session held at TechUK that the “government machine” has taken over some agile work processes in the COVID-19 response , including in the purchase of ventilators.

“The idea that we’ll try something with our best efforts, and if it doesn’t work, we modify it and move on – and do it quickly. acceptance of this [approach] was built. »

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Legacy systems ‘poorly adapted to the demands of digital technologies’, digital leaders tell GGF

Overhauling government-wide project funding, approval, governance and procurement processes was a key recommendation of the Global Governments Forum’s Digital Leaders report released earlier this year, which found that existing systems “are often poorly adapted to the demands of digital technologies, which compromises delivery”.

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

“Agile clashes with the architecture of funding agreements in our country – so the rules of the business case have been based on waterfall methodologies and large-scale capital investments around people or assets,” said commented one interviewee. “An agile methodology is ill-suited to 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 funding jackpot first – and then the people who want that money rush in. The rush to spend can make business owners dependent on consultants and prompt them to buy off-the-shelf systems quickly. rather than undertaking slower but deeper business process transformations.

The report recommended that to realize the potential of digital technologies, national leaders must ensure that these intergovernmental systems – which are beyond the control of digital leaders, in areas such as finance, trade, project management and law – evolve to meet today’s goals, opportunities and risks.

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