Innovation and changeDigital TransformationThe current agenda and beyond: challenges to digital transformation facing the UK public sector

The current agenda and beyond: challenges to digital transformation facing the UK public sector

The UK Government straddles a fine balance between benevolent service provider and defender. Modernising government through digital transformation means moving away from legacy systems while facing new digital threats to security

Government transformation across service delivery in the UK means breaking down digital technology barriers. Increased use of digital technology will enable the UK Government to reduce costs while still meeting citizen needs. Challenges to updating government services include addressing legacy systems, access to expert professionals and addressing the challenges posed by increased cybersecurity.

Updated in 2017, the Government Transformation Strategy noted many high-volume service areas which have now been refurbished to be ‘digital-by-default.’ The updated digital transformation strategy also outlined three focal areas: transforming client-facing services; digital efficiencies and organisational changes across departments; and more holistic internal government transformation. Executing the strategy, the Government Digital Service (GDS) housed under the Cabinet Office works to deliver digital transformation of government.  The GDS also seeks to simplify citizen services while ensuring technology standards. The GDS consults with other departments on how to choose and purchase technology fit for purpose.

Six years on from the codification of its digital transformation strategy, the Cabinet Office has conceded several hurdles. Complex existing architecture, cost pressures, growing applicable skills from existing employees, and cultural hurdles have slowed the Government from coordinating effectively across the 25 departments identified for digital improvement in 2012. Then there’s the issue of departments working in silos. The GDS recently highlighted how some findings are not widely communicated and there is opportunity to do more to share lessons learned. If not, there is risk of duplication, hindering reuse and of missing chances to jointly collaborate on common problems. The use of AI and distributed ledger technology are good examples. Several departments are investigating these technologies but are often doing so independently and in a piecemeal fashion.

That said, plenty of progress has been made. From 2016-2017, the GDS reported cost savings of £450 million through budget control; and since 2012, over £1.2 billion has been saved. Major digital transformations at the HMRC, DWP, and Home Office have been realised, enabling citizens to report, declare and register themselves digitally.

Cost constraints and migration from legacy systems

Often enough, officials are quick to blame legacy systems and out-dated technology. While most assume legacy systems entail technological barriers to change, exiting long-term contracts often prove the biggest barrier. For government, the cap on improvements can be affected by cost pressures. New proposals must pass through the Government’s lengthy procurement process, followed by cost justification according to the HM Treasury’s Green Book guidance for central government business cases.

While digital transformation hurdles still exist across government departments, solutions to streamline systems have been implemented.  One solution to Whitehall’s byzantine maze of IT architecture is the Crown Hosting Data Centres. Purposely meant to service legacy systems, the Crown Hosting Data Centres is run under a mutual arrangement – part government owned and part private. Bringing archaic expertise on-board to run legacy systems, the government can retain some control over the business, outsource the costs of maintaining legacy systems, while realising cloud computing advantages.

The Crown Hosting Data Centres allows government to take advantage of cloud computing benefits. Cost containment can be achieved through cloud computing as cloud infrastructure reduces overhead and hardware maintenance costs. Older server infrastructure and localised digital storages could be eliminated, offering further savings. The attractiveness of cloud computing also encourages the speed and spread of updates – many programmes can simply be accessed over the internet.

From a cost perspective, the Crown Hosting Data Centres offer “transparent pay-for-what-you-use pricing, no minimum volume commitment and a choice of duration commitments.” Interestingly, while contracts vary in term and there are no break fees, the pricing remains stable across all contracting sizes. Consequently, smaller local authorities can subscribe to stable data hosting services in the same way that entire national ministries can – for the same price discount. Lending further credence to the credibility of the service, high profile ministries including Ministry of Defence, the Office of National Statistics, and large NHS trust Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Luton ICT Shared Services (HBL) have engaged Crown Hosting Data Centres.

Digital transformation barriers and complications are not limited to cables and wires. Real life problems occur when digital services collapse. Prior to Crown Hosting Data Centres providing services to NHS HBL, the health trust internalised its data hubs. These on-site hosting servers served some 9,000 users across over 200 localised GP practices, 122 sites and two counties. The geographic reach of the two data hubs was stretched. Outages and incidents plagued the trust, with bi-weekly incidents occurring. Spared public shame, the HBL migrated to the Crown Hosting Data Centres, enabling the management team to control its budget, identify savings, and reliably assess operating costs.

The widespread use of bespoke software also poses problems for digital transformation. Disparate systems and customised solutions hold back digital transformation because migration to better technology can only be done on a piecemeal basis – one organisation and department at a time. Many departments have commissioned specialised software, including the National Audit Office, Home Office, DEFRA, Ministry of Justice, The Pensions Regulator, and local councils. In 2017, a Freedom of Information request was made exposing some of the bespoke software managed by third parties on behalf of government entities. Eastbourne Borough Council’s response named Civica W360 as their CRM system, with an approximate per annum spend of £15,000. While the per annum cost does not seem like very much, this does not compare well to more mainstream offerings. Out-of-the-box, flexible SaaS requires little to no bespoke tweaking – and CRM users can subscribe for as little as £20 per annum.

Government focuses on cyber security

Liam Fox, currently serving as Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade, is an unlikely politician to be voicing digital transformation strategy and planning for the UK. In an article for the New Statesman, Mr Fox wrote “it’s the responsibility of government to lead the field in our global cyber security standards and to promote the UK’s world-leading expertise and strengthen capabilities in the UK.” He is right to champion cyber security as part of government transformation. While many hackers target business and companies, they also threaten security and compromise the integrity of UK citizen data. The new digital transformation strategy for National Cyber Security 2016 addresses some of the hurdles to digital safety. Identified digital transformation hurdles included hardware and software weaknesses, which prioritised interconnectedness and user convenience over security. Equally, the government acknowledged the lack of training in cyber security across public and private sector.

In late 2017, WannaCry ransomware caused significant public disruption by hacking 37 NHS Trusts. Jeopardising crucial public services and data, WannaCry locked NHS staff out of their computers, resulting in lost surgery bookings and patients were being turned away from essential services. Since that attack, the National Audit Office investigated the incident and declared that the attack was relatively unsophisticated and was something that basic IT security practices could have prevented. Software warnings from NHS Digital issued months ahead of the incident had asked NHS Trusts to fix the bug. Heeding the warnings could have safeguarded systems, but these were not actioned. Unsurprisingly, legacy software and systems proved vulnerable to malicious intent.

Government digital transformation combines public service delivery and, more recently, digital security. Digital technology transformation means not only addressing barriers, but looking ahead. Agendas to tackle the complex web of computers may strike fear of the unknown, but digital strategy must push forward and address new cybersecurity threats.

Attracting the right talent and growing skills from the UK talent pool

Successful government transformations typically go hand-in-hand with competent IT professionals. In a study commissioned by consultancy Capgemini, 68% of respondents from around the world identified cybersecurity has the foremost desirable IT skill. The study also highlighted the gap between current IT proficiency versus demand – in the cybersecurity field, only 43% of employees are considered proficient. No other business IT skills, like cloud computing, analytics, web development, or even data analytics topped the most in-demand cyber security skills.

Like many organisations, the UK Government struggles to recruit IT professionals with enough experience to drive full digital technology strategies. In particular, competing for top cybersecurity professionals can be costly. The most in demand experts can command £90,000 to £130,000 basic salary, and those at the top of the field can achieve £270,000. These eye-watering figures pale in comparison to the UK government’s cap on public sector wages. Equally the bureaucratic nature of government may not appeal to professionals hungry for ‘excitement’ in developing cybersecurity defences for global insurers and corporations.

What the future of digital transformation could look like

Central government has given substantial thought to what digital transformation might look like until 2020. In parallel with recent General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), data protection and sharing plays a feature role in addressing future data security. The UK Government’s role as the custodian of sensitive citizen data means decisions in sharing data are carefully scrutinised. Priorities until 2020 include “ensuring that public sector workers understand the ethics of data sharing – including what is and what is not permissible.”

Government Transformation 2020 also outlines some of the high-level objectives under the new appointment of a Chief Data Officer for which coordination is a key component. Government will also aim to use personal data in a responsible way, coordinating across departments to meet individual needs. Central government will also seek to monitor emerging digital threats and security issues across all platforms. Bridging the divide, the future looks comprehensive – digital cohesiveness, service delivery, and security – all in one package.

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