UK expert shares digital transformation journey at FST Gov NSW

Liam Maxwell, a noted UK digital authority, will share insights into government transformation during an exclusive keynote address at the annual FST Government NSW conference on 17 May in Sydney.

The UK government’s digital reforms are coming under the spotlight during a keynote by the international authority, Liam Maxwell, at the annual FST Government NSW conference being held 17th May in Sydney

Maxwell, the UK's first national technology adviser, and chief technology officer with the Government Digital Service (GDS) office, will share his first-hand experiences around disruption, market engagement, international alliances, and service delivery reforms.

During his time with the GDS, Maxwell was instrumental in establishing the high-profile Digital 5 group, a coalition of governments representing Estonia, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea, and the UK.

During the transition phases, Maxwell noted the administration had invested considerable amounts of ICT, estimated at £16 billion, or one per cent of the British economy. “Although you hear a lot about the funding, it’s amazing what you can do and not get it right,” noted Liam during an industry address in London*. With ICT procurement, the focus was moving from paying large amounts of money, or having systems that did not necessarily work.

“We would design services that would be based around user needs,” recalled Liam. “It is very rare for a politician to say ‘we will build services around our users.’ That was the core running principle around what we were doing. We were there to build digital government and this was around user needs.”

The technology had often moved faster than policy planners or the timelines involving service delivery providers. “This was actually starting to render us irrelevant. It was rather like when you run IT in an organisation. If you don’t provide the services, then users will go for shadow IT.”

The UK government had designed itself in a particular shape where it kept reinventing itself, but around the common components. “We had managed to lock all that inside a black box procurement structure. We tried to procure our way out of trouble. Culturally we were facing the square of despair,” he said.

The goal was to move beyond the being a department of ‘no,’ said Maxwell. “Every time you wanted to change something, people would say ‘oh but the legacy.’ Also, we had spent 25 years outsourcing services. So we had to get good people back in.”

When facing ICT change, departments often cited security as being a problem. “For example, with placing your data into cloud services, civil servants found that hard to accept. But organisations that run cloud services are quite good at security. In fact, people would say that cloud is more secure.”

With procurement, a new tack had meant changing the rules. More broadly, business and especially small-to-medium enterprises, had found it costly to sell into government. “Why would you spend your money filling in procurement forms?”

One solution was changing the model from silos into reusable shared platforms. “There were common things we were all doing. As with electricity, we didn’t build departmental generators, and we had to move to a platform-based approach.”

The goal was creating a technology code of practice and commonly-agreed design principles. “We also committed to open document formats and being able to share documents using open standards.” This also meant cutting the friction, and making technology governance much simpler.

The UK government had expanded the marketplace for ICT suppliers. Previously, 80 per cent of the spending was being done by 12 established companies. This was expanded, while making it easier for SMEs to pitch to government.

The UK Digital Marketplace is currently estimated at about a £1 billion a year. Nearly 52 per cent of the business is represented by SMEs. “The point was to create an innovative supply chain,” recalled Maxwell. “The UK is now a centre for digital excellence in government, and the OECD had recognised that.”

At the heart of the digital approach was talking to other governments, more specifically, the D5 participants. The goal was to build the “government of the internet,” noted Maxwell. This was supported by a standardised look-and-feel, while offering transparency for citizens.  

*Liam Maxwell was an earlier speaker at the European Cloud Foundry Summit 2016. This is an edited excerpt from his address.


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