Why we need Brexit Exemplars for Service Transformation (BEST)


Bill Mew explains why Brexit is an opportunity for transformation that we must do our BEST to grasp.

Real transformation is hard to achieve as resistance is typically widespread. Sometimes external factors can provide a brief but unique opportunity for change, as was the case when 25 exemplar projects were used by a coalition government in desperate need of efficiencies to drive to a wave of digital transformation. 

The First 25 Exemplars 

In 2010, Martha Lane Fox made a set of recommendations on which the Government Digital Service (GDS) was built and that have been central to the government’s digital strategy ever since. Driven by the austerity agenda and the coalition government’s need to make dramatic efficiency gains, the 2013 Government Digital Strategy then committed the Government to the redesign and rebuild 25 significant ‘exemplar’ services, making them simpler, clearer and faster to use. The exemplar projects succeeded in driving a wave of digital transformation – enabling everything from registering to vote or renewing your passport using a simple online service, to viewing and renewing your vehicle tax or booking a prison visit online. 

GDS become a model for other governments to follow, including in the USA and Australia, according to former Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, under whose watch GDS was established and flourished. As Maude explained in his 2017 speech at Speaker’s House in Westminster: Britain went from being a country which was “a byword for expensive government IT car crashes” to being ranked top in the world by the UN for digital government in 2016. 

Progress Stalled 

Unfortunately, the UN’s 2018 e-Government ranking shows the UK slipping down to 4th, behind Denmark, Australia and South Korea. As Maude went on to explain in his 2017 speech: 

“For much of the ‘mandarinate’, [the digital transformation agenda] was an assault on their autonomy and empires. And what we know about empires is that they fight back. And boy, are they fighting back! The mantra tends to be: ‘We definitely want to continue with the reforms. But they’re now embedded in the departments, and it’s definitely now safe to relax the central controls.’ When you hear those words you know that what they really mean is that the reforms are embedded six feet under, and that the departments are cheerfully going back to their old ways.” 

And it isn’t just the ‘mandarinate’ that has impacted progress on transformation, as Martha Lane Fox explained:  

“Much good work being done to help the government modernise – and to make it work for people who live their lives digitally – is being dismantled. Departmental silos are creeping back, replicating cost and inefficiency and, most importantly, letting down citizens.” 

She bemoaned the relaxation of central controls, and the failure to nurture and support GDS as catalyst for change, arguing that GDS had been allowed to disappear in all but name. There was then a subsequent struggle for control of the digital agenda where control passed from the Cabinet Office to DCMS as Matt Hancock moved from one to the other, before Hancock then moved again in a more recent reshuffle, leaving ‘digital’ and DCMS in the hands of a minister with less digital experience or central clout. 

While the exemplar projects succeeded in acting as a catalyst for change within a number of government departments, some have argued that an opportunity was missed for wider service reform and the breaking down of silos within government to make services more citizen-centric. 

Brexit and the Case for a New Set of Exemplars 

Whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, Brexit will represent a massive shock to the system, driving the need for another significant wave of reform as everything from rural payments to customers is reconfigured.  

We need to grasp this opportunity to define a new wave of exemplar projects that go one step further than the original set of 25 did – to change the way that the government works and to introduce a citizen-centric service delivery model. 

In the same way that the 2013 Government Digital Strategy set out 25 significant ‘exemplar’ projects to make services simpler, clearer and faster to use, a citizen-centric strategy needs to set out to coincide with several Brexit Exemplars for Service Transformation (BEST) to re-engineer government.  

As Iain Patterson, formerly the CTO at DVLA and the man behind one of the most successful exemplar Transformations in Government, and now CDO at UKCloud, explains:

The citizen sees all forms of government as a single joined up entity, but in reality it is a set of silos that while interdependent are not effectively integrated. For example you have social care and child welfare which initially was broken down into different silos of central and local government. This means it makes it impossible to obtain a single view – a problem that is repeated right across government. 

Taking a citizen centric view with regard to the design of public services and the citizen’s interaction with these services would mean that individual departments would have less autonomy. Within the silos of systems, processes and technology, you would need to create a government taxonomy that truly serves the citizen, reduces costs of service and provides transparency of transaction costs. 

I see Brexit as a massive opportunity to align policy, legislation and operations – rather than continue to act policy by policy and department by department. It is a real opportunity for systems and process rationalisation, starting with a single citizen-centric, service-designed architecture. Patterson adds that this is essential: 

Not only is Brexit an unmissable opportunity to introduce a citizen-centric, service-designed architecture, but coping with the challenging level of transformation required by Brexit will be far easier if we have a citizen-centric, service-designed architecture to work from. It works both ways. 

[Patterson will be outlining his thoughts on transformation and the rationale for a single citizen-centric, service-designed architecture in more detail in a forthcoming e-book] 

Opportunities like this for real transformation are few and far between. It will take leadership and vision to grasp this opportunity. Whatever the other distractions, we need to do our BEST.