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Are we ready for the smarter state?



Institute for Government sets out stall on digital transformation ahead of spending review

As Whitehall and most of the wider public sector braces itself for the gruelling Spending Review on 25 November, thinktanks and lobby groups are setting out their stalls. In its latest report published today, the Institute for Government (IfG) raises doubts over whether the public sector has the capacity to survive the cuts by fulfilling the prime minister's dream of a 'smarter state'.

David Cameron coined the phrase in a speech on 11 September, in which he said the smarter state would be underpinned by reform, devolution and efficiency. Digital public services would be a key component.

In Managing with less the IfG says that the government "is right to have an ambitious agenda in this area" - but that there is a risk that too much will be attempted too quickly and the momentum will be lost.

Next phase

It notes that the most visible success of the digital programme has so far has been in the rationalisation of government websites, but adds: "The next phase of digital transformation will require a strong focus on end-end businesses processes rather than simply concentrating on the customer interface."

This is risky, especially when more than one department or agency is involved. "There is also the risk that too much will be attempted too quickly, without sufficient capability or support from the senior owners of business processes that must change."

To maintain momentum, it recommends that the government continues to ensure central oversight of the change process.

Key enablers

The report identifies two "key enablers" to a smarter state. One involves the government using legislation to reduce spending through direct cuts or by reducing the workload of departments: for example, the coalition’s abandonment of identity cards.

Digitising services also often requires legislation, such as with the abolition of paper tax discs. But this approach is vulnerable because of a busy parliamentary timetable and the government’s small majority in the House of Commons.

The second revolves around Civil Service capacity and capability. Overall it has shrunk by 23% since 2010, but the figure has varied considerably between departments, and the impact of these cuts is hard to quantify, according to the IfG. 

But it adds: "What can be said is that they have resulted in a Civil Service that is older and more senior than in 2010."

This has implications for the skills mix in departments. The report’s lead author Daniel Thornton last month pointed out what he called "a cultural struggle between the kids from Shoreditch with stickers on their MacBooks and the people who are from a different generation running programmes in Whitehall. These two tribes still need to learn each other’s language."

The institute says it will examine issues such as digital transformation further in the coming months. No doubt on 25 November the chancellor will give the policy wonks plenty of food for thought.






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