Accelerating digital transformation in the UK public sector

Only 17% of digital transformation efforts have been deemed completely successful, finds a new research report from KPMG and Forrester - so what can those successful projects teach the wider public sector, and where are the big opportunities to increase the level of digital maturity in the sector?

Listen to 'Accelerating digital transformation in the UK public sector'

This was the focus of a webinar last week featuring expert perspectives from Government Digital Service (GDS), Ministry of Justice (MOJ), Cabinet Office and KPMG itself, with Government Transformation Magazine co-founder David Wilde steering proceedings.

A Foundation of Excellence

From the pioneering achievements of GOV.UK to the strategic clarity required to overcome legacy system challenges, the panellists shared a common belief in the power of digital to innovate and improve the experiences citizens have with the services they offer. Yet, as the digital landscape evolves at an unprecedented pace, the question remains: how can the government not only keep up - but lead in the digital domain?

laura webb KPMG-1

“I suppose if I was to pick out one trailblazing digital service, I'd probably highlight the success that GOV.UK has had on the access and availability of services,” said Laura Webb, Partner and Head of Technology Transformation, Public Sector, KPMG. “It has given us a whole new level of being able to interact with government.”

Webb stressed the importance of viewing the success of GOV.UK as a departure point, saying that we all needed to “think bigger about what we’re doing and not get sidetracked after six months. Otherwise you end up delivering project after project rather than an actual end-to-end transformation. Transformation programmes are going to need to be multi-year to do them successfully if we really do want to tackle the legacy debt that’s at the heart of of government.”

Su Morgan, Head Of Digital & Technology, Office of the Public Guardian, Ministry of Justice reflected on her experiences with the UK's digital exemplar programme, underscoring the energising effect of initial successes in digital government. 

Su Morgan, Head of Digital & Technology OPG - MOJ"I was fortunate enough to be part of the government UK exemplar programme. I think from the energy that we saw there in terms of ‘we can do anything’, we became the world leader in digital," Morgan shared. “We didn’t get complacent but we've obviously got a lot of people who've caught up, and some currently superseding us. But I really wouldn't dismiss some of the great things we've done across government. I think the role of GDS in bringing together a digital strategy has been so important.”

While all the panellists had believed in government's capability to innovate and improve citizen experiences through digital transformation, they stressed the importance that the success shouldn’t be limited to this, there is an opportunity to build on the achievements by evolving the digital landscape within government by working at scale. 

Accountability and Usability

Christine Bellamy, Director GOV.UK, Government Digital Service, and Patrick Haston, Head of Cloud Transformation, Cabinet Office shared their approaches and observations, highlighting the complexity of modernising government systems and the urgency of adapting to rapid technology change.

Patrick Haston, Head of Cloud Transformation, Cabinet Office

Haston outlined the Cabinet Office's ambitious efforts in cloud transformation aimed at enhancing the work life of civil servants. "What we're doing is we're trying to transform the civil servants' experience to match the good work that has been done for the citizens. We've got a target of replacing over 280 systems with five ERPs," Haston explained. This massive consolidation and upgrade effort underscores the government's commitment to not just modernise its technology infrastructure but also to significantly improve operational efficiency and user satisfaction.

Bellamy spoke to the broader challenge of ensuring that government digital services remain user-focused while also keeping pace with fast-evolving technology.

Christine Bellamy, Director GOV.UK, Government Digital Service

“I think what I see coming into government in the last couple of years, is there's a real rigour around making sure we deliver great outcomes for users, and we're really good at holding ourselves to account and I think we should be very proud of that. When you work with the departments across government, they are brilliantly placed and really understand their sector and they are building on top of the work that was done years ago in GDS,” Bellamy noted. “So I think we're at that wonderful point where it's almost like an ecosystem. I think the challenge is to really stress that ecosystem and make it work harder.”

“I think if 12 years ago, it was about a mandate to do digital, the way new digital now it has to be about collaboration. So I think we're in a good spot. But I think we've got to build on the foundations that we've done, but I think we've got some fantastic things to build on top such as the design system and the way we put users first.”

Together, Haston and Bellamy highlight the dual focus required in government digital transformation: understanding and taking advantage of new technical capabilities - while ensuring that these are aligned with user needs.

Driving Digital Adoption

The discussion then looked at some of the significant hurdles in digital adoption within the government, the study between KPMG and Forrester had highlighted challenges in technology strategy (48%), skills (42%) and budget (44%) - particularly the critical challenge of outdated legacy systems that act as a barrier to modernisation efforts - emphasising the importance of clear direction, persistence, and interdepartmental collaboration.

KPMG’s Webb underscored the necessity of bold leadership to navigate these waters, stating: "It's going to take somebody with a big vision and commitment and a steady hand to be able to lead it through and not try and say I'll get it done in six months - but instead having a bigger vision to what the transformation is actually going to be."

In addition to the technical challenges, the panellists pointed out the need for increased cooperation among departments to fully harness the power of data in driving informed decision making. 

“I think one of the biggest barriers is finding a way to incentivise a collaboration between the departments to unlock the value that is hidden within that data and how we can therefore use it to provide much better citizen services and outcomes,” Webb continued.

There was a clear consensus that overcoming digital adoption barriers requires more than just technological solutions. It calls for an overarching strategy that includes a clear vision, the resolve to tackle deep-rooted system issues, and a framework for departments to collaborate effectively, thereby unlocking the transformative power of shared data for the betterment of public services.

AI, Automation & People

The webinar participants discussed the transformative impact of AI and automation on government services, the concept of which is not new to public services, focusing on the potential to revolutionise operations and bridge existing skills gaps. They also highlighted the critical need to prepare the workforce for the imminent changes brought about by these advancements.

Webb pointed to the government's early adoption of automation and AI, noting its successful application across departments: "Government has been doing it for years - and now everybody is talking about AI and automation," Webb remarked, challenging the perception that the public sector lags behind in technological innovation.

She addressed the common fears associated with AI and automation, suggesting that instead of job displacement, these technologies would lead to enhanced efficiency and the creation of new opportunities. "Although a lot of people see tech as a threat, I think government has learned over the last decade, everyone was scared about automation coming in and taking a load of jobs away. And actually, it hasn't, which was never the intent of it. Instead it's made things more efficient, freed up time for people to be able to access other activities. And we need to be identifying for each of our teams, what the career pathways are, what AI opens up in terms of the other activities that people are going to get freed up to be able to focus on. And where applicable, we train people.”

Haston from Cabinet Office agreed with Webb that AI tools will change the nature of the work, as well as the user experience: AI tools are making it easier for developers and others to to create new applications and new functionality. So I think out of that, we're going to see a step change in how quickly new ideas are brought to market. So we're gonna see new things coming out all at a faster pace than ever before. We're going to see greater innovations in the products we use and then I think it's going to the challenge for us is to how do we how do we keep up? How do we cope with that level of change and take advantage of it and not be left behind?”

In other words, it’s not just about getting people up onto the new platform - but also to tackle business change at a strategic level and the culture management that underpins the impact of its implementation and use.

“This is not a static thing that you're joining, you’re joining a world of innovation and we have to start thinking in this in this way - that it's continually changing, continually improving and we need to we need to keep up and operate in a different way to take full advantage of that,” Haston added.

Bellamy spoke about the dual need to keep pace with technological changes while ensuring user-centric design remains at the heart of government digital services. "We are in a constant changing state. The big thing we've all got to learn and get better at is dealing with the ambiguity of that change," she stated, highlighting the dynamic nature of technology and the importance of adaptability.

The panellists agreed that AI and automation offer significant opportunities for public sector innovation but stressed the importance of strategic workforce development. By embracing these technologies, the government can not only improve service delivery but also empower its employees with new skills and roles, ensuring a future-ready public service.

Embracing Digital Transformation in Government

Central to the panellists’ conversation was the recognition of the remarkable strides already made in digital government, as evidenced by the successes of initiatives like GOV.UK. Such achievements underscore the potential for digital platforms to significantly enhance citizen engagement and service delivery. Yet, the journey ahead requires navigating the complexities of legacy systems, fostering cross-departmental collaboration, and harnessing the transformative power of AI and automation.

The panellists emphasised that overcoming barriers to digital adoption is not solely a technological endeavour but also a leadership challenge. It calls for visionary thinking, a commitment to continuous improvement, and a strategic approach to change management. Moreover, the role of AI and automation in shaping the future of work within the government highlights an opportunity to address skills gaps and prepare the workforce for the evolving demands of the digital age and citizen expectation

In conclusion, the discussion laid out a blueprint for digital transformation, with the study showing that there is a plan to increase budget dedicated to accelerate transformation in government, the panellists have acknowledged for this to be success it needs to be built on the pillars of innovation, collaboration, and user-centric design. By embracing these principles, government leaders will drive meaningful change, leveraging technology not just to improve operational efficiencies but to create more responsive, accessible, and inclusive public services for the citizens they serve. 

You can download the full findings from the study on the state of digital maturity in the public sector here.

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