Does Britain’s civil service ‘need’ Brexit to complete its digital transformation?

‘We have taken up the enormous challenge of Brexit – and while we tackle it – indeed, as part of tackling it – we are building our future capability and accelerating towards that goal,’ claims the ‘CEO’ of the civil service, who sees tech as central to that mission

Posted 2 May 2018 by

Whitehall needs to use Brexit to complete much-needed reforms and to do that the country’s mandarins need to get a lot more tech-savvy – says no less a figure than the most senior civil servant of them all, John Manzoni.

Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service and Permanent Secretary (Cabinet Office), who joined the public sector after a long career in the oil industry, believes many Brexit projects require new technology in one form or another but need to be built to common “new digital standards, in agile ways with new and different partners, allowing an iterative development process”.

The need to equip Departments with the right technical and data skills as the state increasingly engages with citizens in a digital world was also one of the main planks of a speech Manzoni delivered at think tank the Institute of Government yesterday, but made available for wider consumption on GOV.UK here.

He used the occasion to measure Whitehall’s progress in moving from a body really only able to work on policy after decades of outsourcing to delivery.

And while progress has been strong, he reported, he also noted that more work needed to be done in the state sector around upskilling in the capacity of public sector buyers to better deal with the market to build “sophisticated and flexible relationships with the private sector…  to move us on from the transactional, price-based relationships that still exist across parts of our system”.

While acknowledging many remaining challenges, Manzoni does also see much to be optimistic about, especially around better exploitation of the power of technology in the public sector:

“The digital transformation of public services means we’re delivering in ways that people expect and that are becoming more and more routine for government,” citing examples such as the way HMRC is “trailblazing” the adoption of AI and robotics for mass-repetitive tasks, and the fact a new Centre of Excellence has been set up to accelerate the adoption of this technology across government.

Manzoni concluded his speech with a call to arms to the rest of government to continue to modernise: “As senior leaders it is up to us to create the structures within which [staff] can be most effective.

“Give them the modern tools and workplaces to do the best job they can, providing the best public services, and the training and experience to realise their potential.”