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Socitm points to ‘delusions’ over digital


Head of research Andy Hopkirk highlights need for alignment between digital investment and broad policies and instruments

Many public authorities have been caught up in three “delusions” over where technology sits within the wider picture, public sector IT association Socitm has warned.

It has issued a briefing paper highlighting some of the failings in transformation efforts, and saying there should be more focus on aligning digitisation with meeting policy goals.

In addition, the organisation’s head of research Andy Hopkirk (pictured) has told UKAuthority there needs to be a stronger coordination of digital investments with big picture priorities.

The briefing, titled Changing the Game: the systemic failure of transformation, identifies three big misconceptions in current approaches to deploying digital technology in government. One is that it slashes administrative costs, while failing to recognise how it can raise needs for extra resources for development, maintenance and redesign.

Hopkirk said senior officials need to recognise that the benefits from investment are often not in the most obvious savings but long term results.

“In the bigger picture, you may come up with a new instrument or way of doing things that actually increases your management costs, but you get benefits in your outcomes somewhere else,” he said. “There’s a net gain overall. It’s a strategic play rather than focusing on salami slicing or cutting budgets.”

The briefing’s second criticism is that everything has to be user-focused, with a strong emphasis on the interface, without sufficient attention to transforming processes.

Eye of beholder

“It’s one of these things in the eye of the beholder,” Hopkirk said. “If your scope is about doing something about the user interface, then go ahead and do it.  

“But if you have a bigger scope, you can ask why you don’t change the process rather than just the interface. Not everything is about the front end.

“The point of the paper is about focusing on the policies and the instruments, not the means of delivering them.”

Third is a failure to recognise that government and public administration are rooted in nations’ constitutions, policy and law, and that rationalisation often needs changes in these areas as well as technology solutions.

Hopkirk added that, overall, the digital chiefs in public authorities need to work more closely with those in policy, finance and other areas – reflecting Socitm’s long standing position that chief information officers and IT heads should aim for roles in the boardroom of public authorities.

Group effort

“It’s not something the IT and digital people can do on their own. They’re part of a larger group, with colleagues in local government and all the other layers of government and service provision, who all need to be thinking about doing things in different ways – together, not individually.

“To be really transformational and affect the whole thing, all of the experts need to be brought to bear and think not just about how to do things more cheaply, but about how we organise things in a different way.”

Socitm related the needs to an earlier paper it published with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, Simplify, Standardise and Share, which urges organisation to take a high level strategic approach to improve public services.

Head of policy Martin Ferguson referred to a paper from Brunel University claiming that public sector digital transformation changes had been mainly cosmetic.

He said: “Socitm and Local CIO Council are actively pursuing this approach in our contributions to developing plans and actions for health and social care integration and for cybersecurity and resilience. The Brunel critique of past e-government and current digital transformation programmes is timely and thoughtful, challenging us to reserve the term “transformation” only for when it is fully justified.”

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