Written evidence submitted by Dr Rachel Verdin and Professor Jacqueline O'Reilly (University of Sussex Business School)
About the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre
The Digital Futures at Work Research Centre (Digit) is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council to investigate how digital technologies are changing work and the implications for employers, workers, job seekers and governments. It is co-led by the University of Sussex and the University of Leeds Business Schools. This evidence draws on findings from our related EU Horizon 2020 funded EUROSHIP research project, relating to the digitalisation of work, welfare and social protection services. These findings draw on research in 7 European countries, including the UK.
1 Current landscape – leadership, skills, and digital divisions
1.1 The Digital Futures at Work Research Centre has undertaken comparative research to assess the digitalisation of government in seven European countries. This analysis highlights four critical elements of the government roadmap:
1.2 Alongside addressing barriers to efficiency, these critical elements of the roadmap are essential to avoid processes of digitalisation leading to greater inequalities, ultimately leading to greater costs elsewhere.
1.3 The Central Digital and Data Office is part of a wider ecosystem involved in the digital transformation of Government. Our research is developing a model to enable this ecosystem to be better mapped and understood so that points of failure or opportunities for synergies, and efficiencies, can be identified. Across Europe we see 3 types of digital ecosystems: fragmented; synergised; and disconnected. In the UK's emerging digital welfare ecosystem for delivering public services, relationships between key actors in government (locally and nationally), business and third sector organisations are fragmented and lack strategic oversight. The government needs to foster better collaboration and cooperation to build these partnerships and share good collective practices across the regions of the UK. Cohesive coordination is required to ensure opportunities to scale up and mirror successes are being taken (NAO, 2023). The creation of the CDDO is therefore an important step, given this lack of oversight of digital change in the UK.
1.4 Our interviews with experts from business and government offer further insight into problems underlying past digital transformations that must be addressed:
‘it's quite difficult as … we don't have any baselines or any experience in certain things that we're looking to do’ (Government interviewee with departmental responsibility)
This quote speaks to a digital skills gap amongst public service leaders that was openly discussed at the opening plenary of the 2023 annual Gov ICT conference. Many speakers acknowledged how this has undermined progress, both in terms of understanding what needs to be done and the available technical capacity. The complexity of solutions on offer may not be fully understood by those charged with driving digital change in government.
1.5 This gap in expertise was echoed and highlighted by many participants in our research. An expert interviewee from a digital technology provider described the threefold approach that is required when departments are undertaking digital change: a digital transformation strategy, an IT strategy (the right IT systems to address the issue of technical debt), and a customer service / individual needs strategy (recognising issues such as digital inclusion and the need for seamless e-government). However, all too often he found at least 1 component missing, as departments failed to realise the extent and potential of the change required. Another business participant noted: ‘if you just introduce technology for technology's sake all you do is get to the problem faster’. A local government participant described the need to ensure that business leaders within government have a combination of commitment, skill, and budget to ensure effective change. These insights all reinforce the importance of leadership, capacity and skill at the middle level of management, and resource to implement.
1.6 Our research also shows that the Roadmap commitment to address the skills gap should go further. Government should be planning from the outset to prioritise and resource for ‘digital skills at scale’, beyond those at the leadership level. To ensure digital transitions are effective digital skills gaps need to be addressed across the public sector, so that middle managers have the expertise to help implement, and the staff expected to assist with automated service are able to do so effectively. In addition, and to ensure the Roadmap is laying effective groundwork to future proof digitalisation, this Mission should recognise and direct resource to the skill needs of service users. Connectivity is now essential for everyday life. While the digital divide may have narrowed in the UK, experts suggest it has become deeper (Lloyds, 2022): some have moved forward rapidly, but the gap between those left behind has increased. Consideration of the digitally excluded should be a core component recognising digital skills gaps from the top down, bottom up and throughout the life course, recognising the different needs or barriers that different groups face. Good Things Foundation suggest we should now recognise the internet as an essential utility, such as electricity. To ensure no one is left behind the Roadmap should include a focus on ensuring everyone has access to a device, connectivity and the skill set to use it. Innovative collaborations between business and the third sector are helping to address these gaps. This highlights the need for the CDDO to fully understand the UK's developing, yet fragmented digital ecosystem and its interdependencies.
2 Challenges and opportunities: learning from other countries, digital ID and seamless service
2.1 The development of e-government and the ecosystem of actors involved varies between countries. However, there are commonalities necessary to the evolution and efficient management of digital ecosystems for government services—most importantly, good coordination of public sector, business, and community organisations. More synergised models may include:
• successful interoperability between government services
• common data sources, such as master data and basic data registers
• common architectures, such as reference information, standards, guides and frameworks
• standard access for multiple users with effective digital ID systems
• standard business models and contracts
• harmonised financing and payment models
• establishing public Wi-Fi;
• trust and motivation as key determining factors shaping the effectiveness of transformations
2.2 A number of the experts we spoke with reiterated a concern that ‘Digital identity continues to be a massive blocker’. Our comparative research demonstrates a secure digital identity is key to enable successful digital transformation.
2.3 Norway, for example, is a top performer. There is a high level of citizens’ trust in government, rich administrative data registers that can be coupled across a range of fields (e.g. employment, education, taxation, health, property), and relatively few legal and regulatory barriers against the implementation of e-gov. The public sector is a driver, not just adopter, of digitalisation. There is also a focus on providing e-government in a user friendly and seamless way so that it doesn’t matter to the citizen whether the service is managed locally or by national government. They provide a single sign-on system in partnership with banks to ensure secure personal access. Evidence from Norway indicates that “municipalities, county authorities and central government agencies must be able to collaborate in order to develop user-centric, seamless and efficient digital services”.
2.4 Similarly in Estonia, another top performer, there is a close relationship between public and private actors. Again, the role of banks was prominent in pioneering the role of a digital ID system, which was later developed by the tax office (Kattel & Mergel, 2019). ID-cards provide an opportunity for electronic authentication and a legally binding digital signature. Operating as a digital backbone their X-Road system facilitates data exchange.
2.5 Further to these examples, an expert interviewee cited the example of Sweden, again reflecting on the importance of trust in the system (OECD, 2021). He commented, ‘People don’t trust government, but they trust their bank, their bank has their money.’ To help counter the negative publicity surrounding the risks of being online and to help build trust and confidence in e-government one expert interviewee suggested the government launch a campaign to promote the benefits of being online. Similar to ‘5 a day’ this could spell out the myriad of ways accessing the internet may be of use.
2.6 Countries, such as Germany, which are performing less well, have reported that the lack of verification via a single digital identity is hampering digital change efforts.
2.7 In the UK, the lack of single digital ID creates a friction for users when attempting to navigate different national government departments. While we acknowledge the focus of the Roadmap is national government, the distinction between national and local government creates a further level of tension and barrier to a truly seamless e-government. Our research demonstrates the importance of seamless e-government, underlining the need for greater focus and vision at a local level (OECD, 2021). The Roadmap should include a Mission to think beyond the distinction of national and local government for truly effective digital transformation. While the inclusion of levelling up enables some oversight of local government through the Roadmap, this does not go far enough. A more robust framework and linkage between national and local government digitalisation is needed.
3 Digital transformation in local government
3.1 Experts from both government and business described some of the challenges faced that could be resolved through greater oversight of local government digital transformation. When seeking digital change solutions, they described how the current landscape creates a series of problems related to leadership, skill gaps, cost and trust. For example:
‘In the UK you could drive for 2 hours and go through about 6 local authorities, and they're all doing something different. They're all using different software, all using different applications, to do exactly the same things, with exactly the same legislation governing it. Kent is no different from East Sussex, no different from West Sussex. You’ve got different demographic demands in an inner city, like London, but, frankly, the legislation you're following means that really you should be able to ace this on a national level.’
4 Suggested questions for CDDO
Kattel, R., & Mergel, I. (2019). Estonia's Digital Transformation: Mission Mystique and the Hiding Hand. In P. t. Hart & M. Compton (Eds.), Great policy successes (First edition. ed., pp. 143-160). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Korski, D., HKassai, H., Chrousos, P., Wright, J., Harding, V., & Rowley, M. (2020). Better Digital Government: Obstacles and Vision. Retrieved from London: https://issuu.com/p4md/docs/201021_digital_strategy__principles_and_vision.doc
Lloyds, B. (2022). 2022 Consumer Digital Index: The UK's largest study of digital and financial lives. Retrieved from London: https://www.lloydsbank.com/banking-with-us/whats-happening/consumer-digital-index.html
NAO. (2023). Digital transformation in government: addressing the barriers to efficiency. Retrieved from London: https://www.nao.org.uk/reports/digital-transformation-in-government-addressing-the-barriers/
OECD. (2020). Digital Government Index: 2019 results. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/gov/digital-government-index-4de9f5bb-en.htm
OECD. (2021). Economic Policy Reforms 2021: Going for Growth: Shaping a Vibrant Recovery. Retrieved from Paris: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/economics/economic-policy-reforms-2021_3c796721-en