By Campaign Agent Luke Jeffery
Since 2011 the UK government has pledged to become more “digital”. Under the administration of David Cameron, the Government Digital Service (GDS) was set up in hopes that government could realise the potential of digital technology and bring better, more responsive services to the British public. However, seven years is a long, long time in politics and developments have somewhat stifled and frustrated this digitisation process.
Within the plan, published sixteen months ago, there are four overarching aims to government transformation: to improve services by using digital platforms; better use of data in policy making; to cultivate equality within the civil service; and to be more efficient.
To find out why, there are a few questions that need answering, namely, what is the Government Digital Transformation Strategy? What does it mean? And how will it make politics more accessible and the people who govern us more accountable?
Before we understand what a digital transformation strategy is we must understand what a digital platform means both in a technological context and a social one. The term ‘digital platform’ is best described as the software or the hardware of a website. It uses the internet as a platform by which it can provide a service. In a social context digital means a way of working or “the ability to use technology and to comprehend, in real terms, the impact it has on our lives”.
The best way to try and answer this is to break the strategy down into three constituent parts to fully understand how government is embracing new technology.
The transformation strategy aims to change the way that government delivers public services to make them more responsive to the needs of citizens. An example of how it is already doing this is how we can all now register to vote online. It is these citizen-facing services that will really test whether or not the government is serious about moving into the 21st century, as a lot of the digital transformation will take place in back offices. With such a big movement taking place, the digital transformation strategy is an essential plan to understanding how government can improve its relationship with the electorate whilst plotting the course government will take in the future.
E-petitions have been a leading example of how digital technology has lowered the barriers to citizen participation in government, but it must now become more responsive through how it provides services. It must work with the UK’s booming tech industry to modernise its services and processes.
Last year the UK tech sector recorded growth of 22%, the largest growth among any sector in the UK last year. With this in mind the Transformation strategy suggests that government works with British tech businesses to implement its vision for a digital age. Basic digital skills have now become a prerequisite to interacting in the internet age. We use these skills to communicate, find information, (like a blog post on the government digital strategy) and to purchase goods and services. It is skills like these that have become essential to entering employment, processing information and providing for the digital economy.
The Digital Transformation Strategy is step towards how government will adapt the way it implements policy to make social change. By using more digital technology to deliver policy objectives, government can provide services and information more quickly. It also offers the chance to change how policies are delivered for their users should there be a sudden shift in policy or government. Digital services are more responsive to the needs of the electorate because of their ability to change.
The Digital Transformation Strategy document talks a lot about “making policy based on users”. But what it really means is using huge swathes of data to inform decision makers about what policies they should introduce. Data policy is the one thing that has been filling our inboxes and news cycles in recent months, but it is an area that will see more interest from governments and businesses in the coming years. GDPR is one example. With Britain aligning itself with European data privacy laws despite Brexit, policies that rely heavily on data should be carefully considered.
The Government Digital Transformation Strategy explores how digital technology can improve the efficiency of government services whilst improving its cost-effectiveness. Technology in the private sector has widened our choices but has also made us more demanding. The way we live our lives is constantly on the move, more instant and more personalised than ever before. Private companies are now putting the individual at the centre of every transaction. The Digital Transformation Strategy is government’s answer to this trend but with its focus centered on the public sector.
Government has realised the transformative potential of digital technology but the benefits are also huge on the public purse. It has been claimed that “on average the cost of a citizen’s digital transaction is around 14-15p as compared to telephone and face to face costs of £2.80 and £8.60 respectively. This implies that government could save around £1.5 billion every year by embracing the digital move”.
It is no mystery that the UK Government is in need of something that will bring it into the 21st century. The GDS was a good first step but since its creation, followed by the long wait for it to publish its plan, we’ve seen two general elections, three different GDS ministers and a growing Brexit-related demand list. In Europe, the UK Government has been slow to capitalise on the influx of new technology. In Westminster, MPs use up valuable time queueing in lobbies to register a vote, often getting it wrong, whilst their counterparts in Scotland and the European Parliament simply press a button.
The fact that this plan has taken such a long time to publish is testament to all of the obstacles it has faced in a system not willing to embrace rapid change. The public has moved on alongside transformation in technology but government has not. People now want a government which is more responsive to their needs. They want to be able to feel like they are taking part in the democratic and civic process and to get something back from the people who serve. Digital Transformation is the answer, and for once it doesn’t matter which governing party introduces it, simply that the parts move and it is introduced at a wider level.
It is perhaps best to conclude with the foreword of the Strategy Document itself, written by Ben Gummer MP (Cons):
“It is too often the case that citizens feel that they live at the convenience of the state: that the government acts not as a servant but as a master. The result is a perception that the country that works for the people who govern, not those whom the government is tasked to serve. Whether it is a lack of belief in the capacity of government to deliver the pledges it makes at election time, or the frustrations thrown in the way of people every day - from filling in a form to trying to talk to someone on the phone - government seems less and less capable of doing what people want”
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Image Credit: Maurice @ Flickr