Speech

National Digital Conference 2016: building the nation's digital DNA

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

It’s a pleasure to be back.

Today’s conference is all about how we make it to the future and given that theme it would be easy to start with a riff on the marvels of modern technology.

I could talk about blockchain, 3D printing, artificial intelligence or data science. I could talk about how I drove around my constituency in an autonomous electric car this weekend, going for miles without steering or touching the pedals.

But I’m not going to do that. Because everyone here knows that digital is the easy part of digital transformation.

The hard part is the transformation.

It’s easier to write new software than to rewrite an organisational culture. Easier to upgrade to the latest device than to upgrade to the latest skills. Old technology can be replaced but old habits die hard.

Put simply, innovation is easy but change is hard. You can see the truth of that both in the economy as a whole and within organisations, including government.

Today I want to touch on both. Let’s take the economy first.

Digital technology is inherently disruptive. And on the whole, technological disruption is good for our economy.

Consumers benefit from better, faster, more convenient, more responsive services, at lower cost, often for free.

At the same time, digital platforms have created whole new marketplaces, in which millions can trade on their time and talent.

The single parent who tops up her earnings selling hand-made jewellery on Etsy. The Uber driver saving up to open a restaurant - they too are beneficiaries of disruption.

Some say new technology is displacing workers. Throughout history people have said that technology would.

The problem for the techno-pessimists is that real wages are rising and employment is at record levels.

In fact, the more technology we have, the more productive we become.

This cuts costs and allows people to spend more of their money on other things, creating new jobs.

The problem for optimists like us is that people don’t live life in the aggregate. Nobody experiences the economy as a whole.

The challenge of technological disruption is that its effects are spread unevenly.

Just ask travel agents, checkout assistants, HMV employees or Blockbuster franchisees.

My argument is that we won’t capture the full benefits of all this innovation if we don’t help people to manage the change.

That means continuing to invest in basic digital skills, delivering on our commitment to support one million people to get online, driving forward our massive expansion of apprenticeships and getting all young people earning or learning.

It means tilting policy towards pay rises - as we have with the National Living Wage - so everyone has a chance to share in a growing economy.

And where a concentrated area is hit by a big change, like a sudden factory closure, it means being prepared to intervene: working with business to redeploy and retrain workers, working with local government to bring new business in.

So that’s the challenge for the macro-economy: supporting the disruptors and the disrupted, getting to the future without leaving anyone behind.

Now I want to turn to the challenge for our own organisations. Because to fully exploit the transformative potential of new technology we too have to change the way we work.

And as in the wider economy, change can be hard.

I want to set out three guiding principles, based on what we’ve learnt from the last six years of digital transformation in central government.

 Start small

My first principle is to start small, 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.

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.

Its delivered 20, usually, brilliant digital public services, and it’s also proved our point.

Now digital transformation is going from start-up to mainstream. GDS has been backed with £450 million in the Spending Review to drive forward the next phase of transformation over this Parliament.

Right across Whitehall and the public sector, digital transformation is a core part of everything we’re trying to do.

So that’s my first principle: start small and scale-up.

My second principle follows from the first, and it’s that digital transformation ultimately is business transformation.

 Digital transformation is business transformation

No one here needs to be told that this 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.

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.

In future it will be possible to set up a business easily online, for example, or tell government once that you’ve changed your address, or register for the government’s free childcare offer once.

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.

So our Digital and Technology Fast Stream is developing the tech-savvy leaders of the future, with a cohort of almost 100 graduates currently working right across government.

At the same time, we’re working with our most senior civil servants to ensure they are equipped with the skills, tools and vocabulary to lead this transformation.

But for me the most important aspect of business transformation is transforming the way we think about delivery.

In the past, government would launch a new service and then not think about it much until the minister was hauled up in front of the Public Accounts Committee to explain why it wasn’t delivering as planned.

Instead we’re now moving towards a culture of continuous incremental improvement, where service managers adjust the service in real-time, in response to user feedback.

Take GOV.UK/Verify, the new service allowing you prove who are online.

It’s now live, and already over half a million identities have been verified securely online. GDS have carried fortnightly user research, including in their user lab and in citizens’ homes as they use the service.

This has led to improvements that mean a new GOV.UK Verify user is almost twice as likely to successfully complete the process than they were a year ago.

Underpinning any transformation is the central role of data.

Which brings me onto my third point. We increasingly need to think of the role of data in delivering public services.

Data as a public service

Let’s take a very topical example: voter registration.

When the register to vote service crashed last week, within two hours we knew exactly what was wrong and we could fix it – because we had the data.

Each of our digital services has a page on the GOV.UK performance platform, allowing us to see how many people are using the service at any one time.

This meant we knew exactly how many people had been trying to get onto the system when it crashed.

Armed with this information, we were than able to make a case 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.

Interlinking disparate datasets is allowing for radically more targeted interventions.

Combining tax and education data allows us to see which courses deliver the best employment outcomes, for example.

The Digital Economy Bill will take this further forward, to ensure that shared information can improve public services reduce fraud and improve the statistics we rely on.

This is done in a way that supports privacy and strengthens trust but also ensures that society benefits from the opportunities of data science.

With a sensible data-driven approach, it will be possible, for example, to provide automatic discounts off the energy bills of people living in fuel poverty.

Or to deliver more timely interventions for troubled families dealing with multiple government agencies.

And where we’ve published government data in an open, usable format, people have discovered applications for it that we simply couldn’t have imagined.

Travel apps, property valuation software, food hygiene ratings for online takeaway platforms, footfall simulations for retail businesses, a service to check whether your bike’s been stolen – these are just a small fraction of the applications that have so far been engineered by third parties using government data.

Not only that, but the traditional accountability function of data has also been enhanced by digital technology.

Anyone can see our performance platform, how often a service is used and how it much costs per transaction.

In a data-driven world, our effectiveness as a government is a matter of fact rather than opinion.

So these are the principles that guide our approach to digital transformation:

  • start small then scale up
  • treat tech as the means rather than the end
  • treat data as a public service in its own right rather than an afterthought

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.

We can digitise the drudgery and make public service more rewarding.

We can automate work and humanise jobs.

This is a huge agenda and a huge opportunity to deliver for the citizens that we serve.