Analysis The UK government’s digital strategy is among the many things Brexit has put a lit match to, and, amid the current EU exit plan bunfighting, it’s unlikely to top any “Right, what the hell do we do now?” lists.
Faced with the fallout from Brexit on IT systems, Whitehall technocrats will no doubt want to erect – or dust off – an "abandon all hope, ye who enter here” sign.
Yet a genuinely new IT strategy is exactly what we need.
To understand the progress (or lack of) in “digital government” or “e-government” requires viewing it in the context of 20 years of policy-making and redesigning of the wheel.
Certainly, cost savings have yet to emerge from the most recent push to improve government services via online transitions. That is a pity given the enormous amount of money the government still spends on crap IT.
Increasingly experts are now calling for a new approach that avoids the elephant trap of web development. Last week academics from Brunel University argued that the building of information portals and putting transactions on government websites "have not realised the great expectations for it in terms of 'transforming government’.”
The Digital Government: overcoming the systemic failure of transformation (PDF) paper acknowledges that "many good things have happened", but that Whitehall is now in its third phase of "trying to 'make government digital' over the last 20 years – mostly reinventing the previous programmes with new labels.”
The paper concludes that a new approach is needed where policy making should lead technology; not vice versa.
Paul Waller, co-author of the report and a former civil servant, says buzzwords such as “digital”, “platform” and “agile” will not register with policy divisions, government lawyers and parliamentary clerks "working under huge pressure to redesign the UK's administrative legislation following Brexit."
He said: "We need to understand the context in which IT systems are created, often drip-by-drip through legislation, and all of that is also superimposed on an already complicated legal and procedural system. There is no easy way out of horrendously complex legislation mirrored by an horrendously complex IT system. And there is never a political window to rebuild that and risk that scale of change."
The paper advocates a much richer engagement between policy, legal and technical people, speaking the language of policy implementation.
"Moves to bring IT back in-house are sensible. But that also needs to be coupled with rebuilding the relationship with policy people too – and not just fixate about users,” says Waller.
A disconnect between the government's IT strategy and departmental policies was almost certainly behind last year's failure of the Rural Payments Agency. The agency's system ultimately failed to integrate the digital front-end with the back-end system. As a consequence, farmers had to return to pen and paper – and the UK will be hit with a £180m yearly fine from the EU for non-compliance.
In its post-mortem of the disaster, the Public Accounts Committee concluded that GDS intervention and the subsequent “digital by default” reset of the project in 2013 was “inappropriate”.
It said: "GDS introduced a level of innovation and risk to the Programme, without assessing whether the Department was capable of managing the changes, and did not provide sufficient support during implementation."
Digital's great – provided it doesn't cause revenues to fall
Even projects that go well from a purely technical perspective may fail in other ways if not aligned with government policy.
In October 2014, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) replaced its paper tax disc system with a digital version. Despite an initially bumpy start among holiday-goers, that system now appears to be working for most motorists.
However, recent figures obtained by the Financial Times in a Freedom of Information request show that the amount of vehicle excise duty collected from motorists fell by more than £200m in the six months after the tax disc was abolished. That suggests one unintended consequence of a fully digital tax system was an increase in non-payments.
The findings from Waller’s paper echo growing concerns around the false start attributed to website transactions. The authors of Digitizing Government have also pointed out the preoccupation with moving online over transformations that ought to be focused on redesigning and re-engineering entire organisations, "not simply the window dressing" of websites.
One of its authors, Jerry Fishenden, writes that part of the problem is a lack of corporate memory, with the government's default behaviour being to continually revamp its online presences rather than to tackle the truly complex issues of public sector reform. He says much of what was believed to have constituted breaking new ground by “improving the online experience” is “merely tracing footprints on a path already much trodden, reinventing and rediscovering anew the same things – from a common website to cross-government platforms.”
Some have argued that rather than galvanise digital transformation, the report by former digital tsar Martha Lane Fox in 2010 – which recommended the creation of GDS – placed too much emphasis on web publishing. One government source described the report as a “distraction.” Another said: “No one listened to what Direct Gov had learnt following the Martha Lane Fox report.”
The paper, DirectGov 2010 and beyond: Revolution not Evolution, stated the government should “appoint a new CEO for Digital in the Cabinet Office with absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services (websites and APls) and the power to direct all government online spending.”