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What does a digitally transformed government look like?

The UK has targets to reimagine the state’s use of technology. Mike Beaven from AWS discusses how it’s progressing.

The Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), a sub-department of the Cabinet Office, has set out a bold vision for the government to overhaul its digital systems by 2025. The aim is to “transform digital public services, deliver world-class digital technology and systems, and attract and retain the best in digital talent”.

The vision is made up of six missions: to transform public services to achieve the right outcomes; that all citizens will have one log-in for all government services; to enable better data to power decision-making; to power the change with secure, efficient and sustainable technology; to enable digital skills at scale; and to create a system that “unlocks digital transformation”.

Mike Beaven, senior manager, government transformation, at Amazon Web Services (AWS) discusses the challenges and potential benefits to come from working towards the CDDO’s goals. Beaven previously led the GDS Exemplar programme in the Cabinet Office, which helped the government to implement 20 new digital services within two years.

How well does the government use modern technology?

The simple answer is that it’s very varied. If you look at central government, for example, it varies from Whitehall department to Whitehall department. Some of the early adopters – such as the DVLA, DWP and HMRC – have done great things in moving to modern technologies, but even they still have a high prevalence of legacy technology. Local government, again, varies. Some councils are very modern, whereas others don’t really utilise modern technology that much.

Less than two years away from the 2025 target, how close is the UK government to the CDDO’s ambitions?

It’s a real challenge because first it’s hard to tell where the government as a whole is relative to the CDDO’s targets. That’s due to departmental sovereignty and being siloed. The government and the CDDO have got a challenge on their hands to find out where departments are at now in terms of legacy. And then once they’ve done that, then understanding what they need to do to eliminate legacy from government services.

The CDDO outlines how a properly digitised government would benefit the civil service. Could you expand on that?

In my time in government, we had a lot of drive around being user-centric for citizens or businesses, but civil servants are often the forgotten user and have to make use of clunky systems themselves. There would be several benefits for civil servants if shared modern technologies came in. First, it would make it easier for them to do their jobs; enabling them to better serve the people they’re trying to help. If civil servants have less friction in their jobs, and the background heavy lifting is done by computers, instead of by humans, then they could help more people. The Office of the Public Guardian, for instance, which is part of the Ministry of Justice, applied the same principle used for their public-facing digital service to replace the internal systems that processed applications for lasting powers of attorney, making them easier to use. In the process, civil servants were engaged in the functionality, design and testing of the system so it met their needs to deal with applications effectively. It would also improve job retention as the job is less frustrating and more attractive. Also, if there’s consistency across how public services operate, it means that the mobility of staff is greater, which will be great for skills development, shared learning and staff retention. Because if you have common patterns of usage, and you move from department X to department Y, you’ll have some familiarity around the shared technology used. Whereas at the moment, it all looks completely different from one department to the next.

What barriers does the widespread implementation of the CDDO’s vision for 2025 have to overcome?

Resistance to change is the first barrier to address. Government must have the ambition to commit to tackle the legacy technology problem. Having some kind of forcing function within government, which surfaces these necessary changes and puts them on the agenda, is key to overcoming that difficulty. Another challenge to consider is that with implementation of new systems comes complex problems; there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution to things. And the final challenge is around having the right skills within IT departments, within government, and the right network of partners and suppliers that can support the state and its staff around such massive change.

Is there appetite across government and the civil service to implement modern technologies and meet the CDDO’s goals – or are they thinking: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?

The phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is apt. A big part of the challenge is helping the government understand the ways in which current systems represent a risk and are in effect “broken”, and do need fixing. Having a risk-based approach that enables public sector leaders to see the aggregate risk of continuing with current systems should drive the ambition to tackle those risks. The CDDO are going to need some strategies to help this: they could incentivise public sector institutions by providing central funding, or provide specialist help when introducing new technologies and systems.

How do you see AWS helping meet these goals?

We can help leaders fully understand the problems, so that they can then start to form a plan to tackle them. Second, we can show them the mechanisms and tooling that enables them to remediate existing risks, because again, there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. AWS has the broadest and deepest set of technology to help public sector institutions run these new systems in a highly secure, highly resilient manner, with very low environmental impact, as opposed to entities trying to run a lot of this technology themselves in legacy data centres, which consume a lot of electricity.

What would achieving these targets mean for both the government, in terms of its functions, and British citizens, in terms of what they receive from the state?

If government departments could get better access to and make better use of data, to drive insight and decisions, then I think we should see better informed policy. It could be better targeted to specific parts of society, but that really relies on getting the data out of some of the legacy systems. Doing so could better frame real challenges. When I talk about using data, I don’t mean just lovely visualisations, but actually using this to go “we have a problem here”. And the problem might be wanting to identify vulnerable people in a certain geography and then actually using it to help people, using that public data for a real outcome.

Another thing that would be really good for citizens is if we can reduce the cost burden of legacy technology on the state by introducing more efficient modern technologies. Then we can actually redistribute our taxpayers’ money on frontline public services. That’s the thing I’m really passionate about.

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