Matt Hancock outlines building blocks of nation’s digital DNA

Minister for Cabinet Office, Matt Hancock, opened the 11th National Digital Conference yesterday and spoke about the digital transformation of government.

The minister opened his speech by saying that innovation is easy, but change is hard – and that it’s easier to write new software than to rewrite an organisational culture.

After discussing how technology can be disruptive, Hancock went on to set out three guiding principles that will be crucial to digital transformation in central government.


Start small

The first principle is to start small and scale-up, because the best way to convince the naysayers is to build something that actually works.

“The Government Digital Service (GDS) was deliberately conceived as an insurgent start-up bolted onto the Civil Service, not some grand Ministry of Technology,” he said.

“And rather than tell GDS to go out and disrupt the entire public sector, we gave them a specific set of high volume transactions to transform.

“The idea was to demonstrate clearly to the rest of government not just the technology, but the underlying methodology that made it work. Agile working, user research, A/B testing, rapid iteration, data-driven feedback, real-time service improvements and so on.

“It has delivered 20 digital public services, and it’s also proved our point. Now digital transformation is going from start-up to mainstream. Right across Whitehall and the public sector, digital transformation is a core part of everything we’re trying to do.”


Digital transformation is business transformation

Hancock went on to say that his agenda is not about replacing paper forms with websites. Rather, it’s about recognising that you can’t redesign a service without redesigning the organisation delivering it.

He told the audience: “Before GDS, government technology was really just contract management. Digital services were designed, built and delivered by other people, working towards inflexible contracts that locked us into ageing IT. Now, by contrast, we’ve brought our tech architecture, project management and delivery in-house. It means we control and understand our own technology, and, where we do procure through the digital marketplace, we have the knowhow to be an intelligent customer. It also means we can do the common stuff once, then share it with everyone.

“Tech has traditionally functioned in departmental silos with limited interoperability. Yet we all have the same users and, ultimately, the same budget, so it makes much more sense to think of our technology as belonging to a single system.

“It’s why we’re now building platforms for common activities, like GOV.UK/Pay for payments or GOV.UK/Notify for status tracking, which can be reused across government. Crucially, this also means we can work to deliver more complex services, involving multiple departments, in a way that is seamless and straightforward from the point of view of the user.

“This new way of doing things requires new skills. We need more specialists for sure, but we also need the Civil Service as a whole to add digital to their skillset.”


Data as a public service

The final point broached was the use of data as a public service. Hancock used voter registration as a topical example and how, because data was available to show exactly how many people had been trying to get onto the voter registration system when it crashed a case could be made for emergency legislation to give people more time to register.

“We’ve spoken for many years about evidence-based policymaking, but modern data science is making this a reality,” he said. “Interlinking disparate datasets is allowing for radically more targeted interventions. For example, combining tax and education data allows us to see which courses deliver the best employment outcomes.”

Hancock concluded by saying: “Yes change is hard, but in the end it’s worth it. The most exciting thing about technology is that it frees people up to focus on the most fulfilling parts of human experience.”

The full speech from the National Digital Conference can be viewed here.

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