Written evidence submitted by Dr Jerry Fishenden, Professor Mark Thompson and Assistant Professor Will Venters
Three initiatives that government can undertake to address the lack of substantial progress in digital transformation of public services
Challenges of implementing digital change: Submission to Parliament 16 September 2021
We draw attention to the lack of awareness and understanding across senior levels in government (both politicians and civil servants) about what ‘digital transformation’ actually is. This has led to unimaginative, technology-driven framing of ‘digital’ initiatives that ultimately miss their transformative potential. In response, we suggest three urgent interventions to strengthen the capacity/capability of senior decision-makers in the public sector to deliver digital business change:
The “consistent pattern of underperformance” identified by NAO can be directly linked to the fact that over the past 25 years UK digital government efforts have largely focused on achieving efficiency (that is, for example, automating processes or replacing analogue with digital) and, to a lesser extent, rationalisation (that is, standardising and sharing data, systems and processes). These digital strategies have almost entirely missed out on achieving longer-lasting results around re-designing and transforming public services through the use of data (Fishenden 2021). This is the difference between automation (centring on technology-driven efficiency) and transformation: re-imagining the actual objectives and enabling business model around data and emerging technology, to produce modern, citizen-centred outcomes.
Three main factors account for this focus on rationalisation rather than transformation:
● Poor understanding of digital business models and enabling technology amongst most politicians, advisers and officials. This drives technology towards automating existing inefficiencies and perpetuating existing fiefdoms/legal entities, rather than redesigning organisations to improve the way our public services operate.
● Short-term political horizons and a lack of institutional memory. This is due to a culture that rewards broad, varied experience as opposed to specialism. As a result of this, central government is stuck in a loop whereby the same systems and processes are built, dismantled and rebuilt over and over again, but still within existing organisational and service structures.
● Lack of shared understanding around, and commitment towards using, (technology) platform models, and better standards and system development approaches.
● An over emphasis on drawing in outside technology skills (e.g. from consultants or IT practitioners) to build technology but failing to draw on civil service and political expertise to re-imagine services and objectives.
As a result of the above, we have asked whether there may be some simple, targeted interventions that would go a long way towards improving government’s poor understanding and capability in digital business models and enabling technologies.
#2 - Shift the perspective to long-term planning
#3 - Invest in a stronger digital infrastructure
Jerry Fishenden FIET FRSA is a technologist and consultant for private and public sector clients on digital technology, from strategy to delivery. He was CTO at Microsoft UK, City of London Lead Financial Regulator, co-author of Digitizing Government, and specialist adviser for a variety of Select Committees and Government Departments.
Will Venters is Assistant Professor in Information Systems within the Department of Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and is a world-leading expert in cloud-based computing.
Mark Thompson is Professor of Digital Economy at INDEX (Initiative for the Digital Economy at Exeter) within University of Exeter Business School as well as Strategy Director at London-based public sector digital specialist Methods Group. He was a co-author of Digitizing Government, and has served as an advisor on digital to many public bodies.
Brown, A., Fishenden, J., and Thompson, M. (2014). Digitizing Government. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Brown A, Fishenden J, Thompson M, Venters W (2017). Appraising the impact and role of platform models and Government as a Platform (GaaP) in UK Government public service reform: Towards a Platform Assessment Framework (PAF). Government Information Quarterly, 34(2), 167-182.
Fishenden, J. (26th August 2021) Digital Government - stuck in a groove? New Technology Observations from the UK. [blog] Available at: https://ntouk.wordpress.com/2021/08/26/digital-government-stuck-in-a-groove/
Fishenden J, Thompson M (2013). Digital government, open architecture, and innovation: Why public sector IT will never be the same again. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 23(4), 977-1004.
Thompson, M. (2020) Real digital modernisation – a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the new UK government. Computer Weekly, 21 Jan. https://www.computerweekly.com/opinion/Real-digital-modernisation-a-once-in-a-generation-opportunity-for-the-new-UK-government?_gl=1*1hzp548*_ga*NDI1NjMwNTE5LjE2MzE2MzcyOTY.*_ga_TQKE4GS5P9*MTYzMTYzNzI5NS4xLjAuMTYzMTYzNzMwMC4w&_ga=2.116534534.1845749496.1631637296-425630519.1631637296
Thompson, M. (2015) Government as a platform or platform for government: Which are we getting’ Computer Weekly, 2 June. https://www.computerweekly.com/opinion/Government-as-a-platform-or-a-platform-for-government-Which-are-we-getting?_gl=1*177pbmk*_ga*NDI1NjMwNTE5LjE2MzE2MzcyOTY.*_ga_TQKE4GS5P9*MTYzMTYzNzI5NS4xLjAuMTYzMTYzNzI5NS4w&_ga=2.111805828.1845749496.1631637296-425630519.1631637296
Thompson, M. (2019). Digital politics: Reframing our politics or the digital age. Digital Leaders Annual Lecture to Parliament, 17 June 2019. https://digileaders.com/digital-politics-reframing-our-politics-for-the-digital-age/
Thompson, M., Venters, W. (2021) Platform, or technology project? A spectrum of six strategic ‘plays’ from UK government IT initiatives and their implications for policy. Government Information Quarterly. Forthcoming Open Access publication, November 2021.
 TechUK is developing a similar digital kitemark with selected business schools to enable employers to access candidates with understanding of digital business models and how these can be applied to industry; this is considered a separate category from ‘tech skills’.
 A similar programme, Public School of Technology, is in initial stages of development by public.io
 See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/organising-for-digital-delivery/organising-for-digital-delivery recommendation 8
 See https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/metadata-standards-for-sharing-and-publishing-data
 Technical debt is a concept in software development that reflects the extra work that arises when code that is easy to implement in the short run is used instead of applying the best overall solution.
 See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/organising-for-digital-delivery/organising-for-digital-delivery