PICTFOR discusses the Government’s ‘Digital by Default’ agenda
PICTFOR held a panel discussion in conjunction with BCS on Wednesday 11th September on Digital by Default, the Government’s commitment to bring all public facing services online by April 2018 as part of its Digital Strategy. It is estimated that this strategy could transform government services and save between £1.7 and £1.8 billion a year once in place.
PICTFOR Co-Chair Chi Onwurah MP served as Chair for the evening. She opened the session by describing the digital by default agenda as potentially the most important technology initiative ever attempted by government. She applauded the work of the Government Digital Service (GDS), particularly with regards to award-winning website, GOV.UK. However, she also highlighted the Science and Technology Committee’s concerns that the strategy neglected issues of digital exclusion and that more clarity was required around potential savings.
On the panel, Richard Heaton, Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet Office, stated that the importance of digital by default lay in its ability to fulfil two key government priorities: reducing public spending whilst improving the standard of public services. He maintained that moving government services online would help to improve policy making in the age of data and, most compellingly, would benefit transparency and democratic engagement. Mr Heaton also covered ‘Assisted Digital’ programmes, stressing that they were about creating mechanisms help people use online services, rather than permitting old-fashioned paper services to run alongside digital counterparts.
Liam Maxwell, HM Government’s Chief Technology Officer, said that in the past government IT had often been a byword for expensive, overly-complicated projects with limited functionality. He argued that something was amiss when approximately 40% of national spending was on government, but citizens were still unable to easily connect with it, resulting in decreased political engagement. According to Mr Maxwell, digital by default is about bringing the government back to people: “It is about getting the public to actively choose to access a service online because this is much easier than doing it any other way.” He said that GOV.UK had moved incrementally, beginning with standardising publications and currently working to help users make government transactions more easily. Throughout the evening Mr Maxwell said that the aim of GDS was, above all, to build a digital government entirely based around user needs.
Peter Measey, CEO of Radtac provided a more technical perspective on the government’s digital transformation, declaring that he passionately believed agile could and would change the UK for good. He said that an astonishing 45% of software features are never used, highlighting the importance of agile methods for enabling systems to directly address user needs, thereby reducing risk, saving money and improving outcomes.
Mr Measey’s view was supported by David Evans, Membership Director of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. Mr Evans described how agile methods completely change the shape and workings of organisations, so that even those in seemingly unrelated roles, such as finance or marketing, have to understand how agile works. He argued that it was crucial for Parliamentarians to understand agile methods, and offered a free BCS one day training session for any interested MPs. He closed by suggesting that in future, the way legislation is drafted may be subtly different if the end result is to be delivered by an agile team.
Member of the Science & Technology Select Committee and Co-Chair of PICTFOR, Stephen Mosley MP, said that while the Science & Technology Committee had expressed some concerns about the government digital strategy, their overall view had been positive. He highlighted that GOV.UK had saved each department an average of 72% on the cost of updating their websites, and emphasised the success of the new DVLA car tax system, with 50% of people now renewing their tax disks online. However, he said that with 16 million people in the UK unable to complete complex transactions online, the Committee was right to once more raise concerns around digital exclusion.
Following the panel discussion, the floor was opened up to questions from PICTFOR delegates, many of which centred on ways for the government to partner with industry to continue to drive up standards in digital services. Shadow Communications Minister, Helen Goodman MP, raised concerns about the low ratio of money spent on broadband rollout versus digital inclusion, asking whether all citizens would have sufficient access as well as ability to use online services. In response, Mr Maxwell said that he understood her concerns, and that ‘Assisted Digital’ programmes were there to help, but that digital by default meant making an online service so good that people were persuaded to get online so they were able to use it. Lastly, Guardian columnist ‘The Patient from Hell’ stressed that for digital by default to truly fulfil its aims and benefit citizens, it must be adopted by all organisations across government, including local government and the NHS.