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Digital public services: building a bolder, broader, brighter ambition


By Andy Vernon, PA ICT-enabled change expert

The UK government's 'digital by default' strategy represents a welcome step closer to a truly digital economy. The strategy aims to provide digital public services that are "so straightforward that all who can use them will choose to do so". But what does the government need to do to ensure its strategy for digital public services delivers on its bold – and achievable – promise?

If we really want to shift gears towards a digital economy, we must be prepared to do more than what is set out in the 'digital by default' strategy – yet that doesn’t have to come with a huge price tag. The government needs to imbue digital leadership with real energy and ambition. It needs to focus on breakthrough, not incremental, projects and adopt a ‘full-colour’ approach to replace black and white. And it needs to attack the full scale of the opportunity in digital public services ‘below the waterline’.

Harnessing the energy of digital natives

The 'digital by default' strategy states that “digital leaders will lead on development and delivery of departmental digital strategies”. It should bear in mind, however, that the leaders of the most innovative online businesses are all relatively young and/or hugely energetic.

The government is already looking to young, tech-savvy and creative people – drawn from schools, universities and non-traditional sources such as games firms – to challenge and support digital leaders. Our suggestion would be to accelerate this initiative at departmental level by getting younger talent to work alongside senior officials to develop their ambition for digital public services in a practical, integrated way.

Pushing the digital ambition

The digital strategy focuses on redesigning the transactional public services through which over 100,000 transactions take place each year. The government estimates this will save up to £1.8 billion per annum. This focus is good, but it may mean some departments whose core role is less transactional feel less urgency to reform their digital offering.

All departments – irrespective of the number of transactions they have with the public – should be asking how they can use social media, videoconferencing and webinars more extensively. As well as increasing efficiency, digital solutions could drive a step change in the way people engage with traditional public services. As a start, organisations should investigate using social media to engage in a more joined-up and real-time conversation with the public.

Going for breakthroughs not increments

Most of the projects cited in the digital strategy are enhancements to existing platforms. Such projects may be highly desirable, but do they represent genuine innovation? The government should do more to unlock new ideas across the entire public service. One way to achieve this would be to encourage more active involvement from outside government, and to use digital advocacy and crowdsourcing to extend innovation.

Viewing in ‘full colour’

The digital strategy espouses innovation and has the desire to break down barriers, yet its framework is not dissimilar from previous attempts. A big risk is that it will become mired in the precise red tape it is looking to eradicate. To resolve this, government should use industry experts for the active peer-review of ideas. A welcome start has been made, but the government could aim much higher by making all of its plans for digital public services open to challenge from a panel of leaders from the forefront of the digital revolution on a sustained and mandatory basis.

Looking 'below the waterline'

The government’s digital strategy focuses on high-volume transactions with the public, but some of the greatest successes so far, such as those at HMRC, have been around business-to-government transactions. Increasing the focus on web-service transactions between departments and businesses represents a huge opportunity. Business-to-government focus groups to identify and explore these ‘invisible’ transactions for target projects would be a productive next step.

The government’s digital strategy is a great start, but without energy, pace and significant cultural change, truly digital public services are by no means guaranteed. There is a real opportunity here but if the government doesn’t do more to raise its game on digital public services, our fear is that the opportunity will be lost.

To find out more about how PA can help the public sector realise the 'digital by default' ambition, please contact us now .


Andy Vernon, PA expert in ICT-enabled change, talks about how the UK government can make its digital strategy a reality [aXeY56xrbrY]



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