As the speed of technology innovation accelerates, citizens expect governments and public services to keep pace with it, digitising and improving delivery of services and interactions with the public. There is a growing expectation that smart government departments should deliver public services effectively and at speed, mirroring the way commercial organisations deliver a breadth of digital services.

In 2012, the Government Digital Strategy was announced. Since then the UK Government has been recognized as one of the most digitally advanced in the world, coming top in the 2016 United Nations E-Government Survey. It’s also developed the award-winning and internationally renowned, a move replicated by other countries.

This is no mean feat. Technology moves quickly, which means projects that try to digitise may run the risk of being over-budget and over-time. AI projects are one such example. To mitigate this in April 2018 the House of Lords Select Committee on AI announced that the government needs to get smarter about funding, procurement, and infrastructure around AI if it wants to develop a post-Brexit AI economy.

At Pure, we wanted to gauge the views of those at the ‘coal face’ of government digital transformation. Working with independent research agency Insight Avenue, we surveyed 101 IT leaders in UK Central Government to identify what they believed the barriers to “smarter government” were in the UK.

The research specifically focused on the three key pillars of data, security and agility, and their roles in driving transformation. In addition, it highlighted how the foundations of government, such as infrastructure and procurement, need to evolve over the next five years for modern government to meet its transformation objectives and serve everyone.

Digital Transformation is pervasive and critical

Three quarters of IT leaders in government departments (74%) recognise that the way citizens want to engage with the government and public services is changing.

Transformation can take the form of simplifying the smallest of citizen transactions to mass reform programmes – all made possible by digital technology. Technology sits at the heart of transformation and IT leaders state the key drivers of technology investment as efficiency (50%), quality of service delivery (46%) and innovation (41%).

When reflecting on the progression of this activity, 58% of IT leaders say they are satisfied with digital transformation progress. The main hindrances to digital transformation progress across central government are listed as investment in infrastructure (63%), leadership (51%) and processes (50%), with factors such as culture (44%) and skills (42%). These are complex issues that reflect an investment requirement (infrastructure) and top-down commitment (leadership) to address.

The data opportunity

Rapid advances in technology mean departments can now process and analyse data in near real-time, drawing conclusions, creating policies and delivering high-quality public services. Most IT leaders see big data as an opportunity for their department (62%) and the same number think their department should rely more on data / analytics and less on human judgement. However, fewer than a third of IT leaders (31%) say they are using data extensively to drive operational decisions. Fewer still (22%) use it extensively to drive strategic decisions.

The future of e-government

The next five years will see unprecedented change in how the people-facing side of the government operates – risks and opportunities will need to be carefully balanced, priorities assessed and operations reimagined. When asked about the technologies, most expected the transformation of central government departments over the next five years.  IT leaders pointed to surveillance technology (64%), biometric monitoring (63%), AI / robotics (56%) and IoT (55%), followed by blockchain (48%) and automated vehicles (42%) as likely to have the biggest impact.

A data-centric approach is critical for government departments to benefit from these innovations. By putting data at the heart of an organisation, IT teams can then keep business data and applications in place while technology is built around it.

Many government departments are on a journey to becoming data-centric organisations, and once they embrace it fully digital public services will be better equipped to deal with the next wave of technology demands from citizens.

Our take

Government departments are generally satisfied with transformation progress and the UK is regarded highly in terms of digital progress, but there’s little room for complacency. Government departments are grappling with security, data and agility and the challenges they are experiencing here point to common threads around leadership, skills and infrastructure. By focusing on these foundations, central government departments can lead the way in digital transformation and stereotypes of being “big and slow” can be consigned to the history books.

Download the full report here.