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March 8, 2022updated 17 Jun 2022 10:10am

UX and data top the UK government’s digital transformation agenda

The director of the government's Central Digital and Data Office has outlined her agenda for digital change. It is the latest in a string of attempts to modernise government services.

By Sophia Waterfield

User experience and making the most of data will be at the heart of the digital transformation of government services, the Central Digital and Data Office’s (CDDO) director of strategy said this week. Megan Lee believes the government has not “moved fast enough” when it comes to digitisation, resulting in the UK falling behind other countries. 

Speaking at a Westminster eForum event on Monday, Lee told delegates that the public sector had fallen behind the private sector and had lowered the expectation users have when it comes to online government services.  

UK government digital transformation
The director of the government’s CDDO has outlined plans for digital transformation (pic by SHansche/iStock)

She also explained that the creation of the CDDO has provided a new “opportunity to form a new organisation with a clear mandate to act as the strategic centre for data across the government” which will free up bandwidth for the Government Digital Service (GDS) to focus on “building, supporting and iterating digital products, platforms and services that can be used across the government”. 

The creation of the CDDO is the latest in a long list of attempts to reshape the government’s approach to digital services. Whether it will be more effective than its predecessors remains to be seen.

The UK has fallen behind other countries on digital

A decade ago the UK was at the forefront of public sector digital transformation. “We all know that the UK was an early leader,” Lee said. “The creation of Government Digital Services was groundbreaking and the UK’s model of digital transformation has been copied by the US, by Singapore, by Australia and by many others.”  

Referencing examples such as investments in the Met Office weather and climate supercomputer and the development of 4G and 5G-based communications for the emergency services, the director said that the UK has examples of excellence when it comes to digital transformation.  

But why haven’t improvements been seen across the board on government services? “We’ve not moved fast enough,” she explained. “We’ve found that we’re increasingly being left behind by the ever-more rapid adoption of digital channels and ways of working that’s happening across the private sector and we’re acutely aware of the impact that’s having on users’ expectations of our public services.”  

Government spending on technology has remained largely static over the past five years.

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This has coincided with the UK slipping down the UN e-Government rankings, which rate the digital services on offer to citizens. The UK ranked first in 2016, but today it is seventh, Lee told delegates. “Other countries have started to catch up with the UK’s early lead,” she said. “We’ve clearly got work to do.” 

What are the digital transformation challenges faced by the UK government? 

Lee identified two main challenges which she says will be her department's priorities; user experience and how the government itself utilises data.

“It’s the experience of citizens interacting with government,” she said. “As individuals, we interact with our bank, our energy provider, with consumer retail companies in really seamless ways, and that’s where our citizens expect government services to be delivered, the level of quality [that they expect.]” 

Lee states that the government has some “awful examples” when it comes to falling behind expectations. She says that of the 370 services on gov.uk, more than half require a unique account. “If you wanted to try to use all of them, you would need about 40 different sign-in methods to access them,” she said.

Last month Tech Monitor reported that the government is taking steps towards establishing a single digital identity through its One Login programme.

In addition, Lee said, "very few of our services are optimised for mobile, and yet increasingly, phones are the primary or only device available to many of our users,” Lee continues. “So we have quite a lot of work to do in this space to improve the quality of user experience and that is one of our key missions in CDDO.” 

Another challenge the CDDO faces is tackling how government services use data. “Government services themselves are incredibly data-rich and having the access to the right data we all know it's crucial to enabling us to make better and more timely decisions, particularly in times of crisis," Lee said.

The data is of mixed quality, however, Lee add; it’s inconsistent, unactionable or not able to be shared. “Our focus in CDDO is on three things: on data ownership – having a really clear and common model across government –, data availability and data sharing," she said, adding that the newly established Chief Data Officers Forum is playing a key role in this work. It has representation from across government departments and will help deliver these priorities.

Other challenges include helping ministers and senior officials make better policy decisions and to make interactions with government faster and more seamless for users: “Data is very much the key to doing both of those things," Lee explained.

Recruiting and retaining is also difficult, she said, reflecting hiring problems faced by many tech companies in the sector. “We have a real challenge in government in a fiercely competitive market for attracting recruiting and retaining top talent, top digital talent," Lee said.

It’s less about technology and more about culture 

Indeed, recruitment is one of the main reasons government digital transformation has stalled in recent years. As reported by Tech Monitor, the CDDO was set up after two attempts to recruit a chief data and information officer failed.

Is the creation of the CDDO really going to incite change when it comes to digital transformation? Rob Anderson, principal analyst, public sector at Global Data, has his doubts. "Departments like HMRC and DWP, in particular, have systems that are 30 or 40 years old," Anderson says. "They’ve not been able to move away from them; they can’t afford for those systems to fail or have a replacement system does not work the way they want."

But it’s not just about the technology; it’s about the culture within government, says Anderson: "It’s the culture that needs changing most; there are people who don’t want to share data with other departments," he says. This stems from lack of trust within departments: "There’s been enough examples over the years of data going astray." 

But there’s also reputation management to consider; Anderson told Tech Monitor that some departments might not want to give away how badly they are performing.  "Departments themselves are not confident in their own digital services," he says.  

Overall, however, government services need to become more flexible and one new organisation or solution isn’t going to change that, Anderson argues. "Government has always been risk-averse; they take a long time to work out what they want to do," says Anderson. "When GDS was established, it was all about cost-saving and streamlining, but five to six years in they realised that they weren’t doing that.  

"To some extent, they wasted ten years because they didn’t consider that at the start, even though people told them." He adds: "There needs to be a minister that’s driving this [change]."

What is CDDO’s focus moving forward? 

Legacy technology within government services has always been a challenge when it comes to digital transformation, something which Lee acknowledges. "Legacy IT is a real challenge for us in government," she says. “Both in terms of security, operational risk but also from the perspective of cost, flexibility, agility and our ability to exploit data that we do have.” 

Last year, £7.19bn was spent on government IT, while the treasury also provided cash for specific projects such as a £2bn investment for innovative uses of digital tech in the health sector and a significant sum for digitalising the UK border. 

The CDDO is also working with different government departments, leading on developing and driving the overall cross-government strategy in each of their priority areas. "It's about developing cross-government design authorities to drive that out, setting the standards to drive greater interoperability and best practice across the system," Lee explained yesterday. "It's about identifying trends impacting government, whether it be quantum computing or digital twins and ensuring we're exploiting those opportunities as they arise."

Lee briefly mentioned that the CDDO will look to identify the “institutional barriers that have been slow to adapt to modern digital approaches” showing that there is sight into how culture has slowed digital transformation. “We're placing more emphasis than ever on collaboration with our colleagues and departments to ensure that we're working towards common aims," she said.

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