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Bolder, broader, brighter: raising the ambition for digital public services

Andy Vernon

Public Sector Executive

12 November 2013

Aiming to provide ‘services that are so straightforward that all who can use them will choose to do so’, the UK government’s ‘digital by default’ strategy represents a welcome step closer to a truly digital economy.

We have, however, been somewhere like this before. In 1999, the then government brought out the ‘Modernising Government’ White Paper. This vision for an ‘information age government’ relied on ‘new delivery channels like the Internet’ and bears some similarities with the 2013 vision. During the intervening period, huge advances have been made by companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, Twitter and a host of other household names that simply did not exist 15 years ago. With this in mind, the government needs to ask what it can do to ensure its strategy 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 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 ‘below the waterline’.

Harnessing energy

The digital strategy states: “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 – Facebook, Google and Twitter all included – are all relatively young and/or hugely energetic. So how can government identify and harness such talent without stifling creativity and delivery?

The government is already looking for impetus from the next generation, outside Whitehall. Young, tech-savvy and creative people – drawn from schools, universities and non-traditional sources of talent such as games firms – can play a valuable role in challenging and supporting 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 in a practical, integrated way. An effective way of attracting this talent would be to highlight that they would be working at the most senior levels of government and will have the opportunity to make a real difference to public life. If done with real commitment, this could re-energise UK public services as a whole.

Pushing the digital ambition

The digital strategy focuses on redesigning the transactional services through which over 100,000 transactions take place each year, which it estimates will save up to £1.8bn 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 even though they have a great deal to contribute to the wider digital agenda.

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. One example of this change would be to facilitate work across organisations as well as within them.

This will be a fundamental part of the emerging health and social care agenda as well as many other initiatives. As a start, organisations should investigate using social media to engage in a more joined-up and real-time conversation with the public and explore what their ambition should be in such areas.

Going for breakthroughs not increments

The majority of the projects cited in the digital strategy are enhancements of, or improvements to, existing platforms. Such projects (including changes to existing offerings for carers’ allowance, student loans and rural payments) 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. Using digital advocacy and crowdsourcing would also help provide this stretch. Thinking radically, might there even be an opportunity to take government as a whole into cyberspace? If so, the costly physical barriers to change would be removed, and the public would be able to deal with government through a seamless ‘shop window’ that removes the need to worry about separate agencies altogether.

Viewing in ‘full colour’

As with its predecessors, the digital strategy has all the hallmarks of a worthy Whitehall white paper. It espouses innovation and 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 – and part of the issue here is cultural. 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 open to challenge from a panel of leaders from the forefront of the digital revolution on a sustained and mandatory basis. If told something ‘simply isn’t possible,’ this panel would be qualified to challenge government to prove why not. This would help identify – and thus focus on eradicating – some of the more genuine barriers. Again, cultural change in the public service will be a welcome bi-product of this challenge.

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 actually 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, a truly digital public service economy is by no means guaranteed. There is a real opportunity here but if the government doesn’t do more to raise its game, our fear is that the opportunity will be lost.

Andy Vernon is a public sector expert at PA Consulting Group

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