UK Government: Time to think again about the journey to digital transformation?


I’ve written before about how the COVID-19 crisis has forced UK government departments to accelerate their digital transformation, and proved that it’s possible to put policy into practice in weeks, rather than months or years.

Amidst the dark cloud of the pandemic, it’s important to acknowledge silver linings where we find them, and the success of recent digital initiatives such as the online coronavirus vaccination booking service deserves to be celebrated.

In fact, most of the government’s latest generation of digital services offer a high-quality user experience, and citizens are often pleasantly surprised by how simple it is to renew a passport or tax a vehicle online or even on mobile.

These user-friendly web applications also make it easier to capture data, which is an important first step in government’s digital journey. However, digital transformation needs to go much further to realise its true value. The data that flows in from all these new apps must be integrated and analysed to enable smarter decision-making and automation. That’s where the real benefits lie.

First step or false step?

It’s important to ensure that the advances in agility and digitalisation that we’ve made during the pandemic don’t turn out to be false steps. In a crisis, when emergency action is needed, the top priority is to respond fast. Once the crisis has passed, it’s sensible to review whether the solutions you’ve put in place will only work as a temporary fix, or if they provide a solid foundation for future development.

I’ve been reading a book called Think Again by organisational psychologist Adam Grant, and it’s very relevant here. Grant argues that the most dangerous time for decision-makers is when they’ve started a new initiative, overcome their initial doubts and had some early success. This success can lead to overconfidence, “preventing us from doubting what we know and being curious about what we don't,” as Grant puts it.

It’s at this point that a willingness to “rethink and unlearn” becomes extremely valuable. Questioning your assumptions and actively critiquing whether the methods that have made you successful so far will continue to serve you well in the next stage of your development.

Putting principles into practice

So, how can we apply Grant’s “rethink and unlearn” principle to digital transformation in the government sector? First, let’s examine the assumption that creating new citizen-facing digital services is the path to successful digital transformation.

There’s a significant amount of truth to this because these services are popular with the public, make peoples’ lives easier, and provide new sources of accurate data. On the other hand, there’s a danger of assuming that these types of services are the only type of digital transformation that matters, and that this is where we should place our entire focus.

In fact, while citizen-facing services may get the most recognition and the biggest headlines, it’s in the back-office that the real prize of digital transformation will be won or lost. If the data we obtain sits in siloed departmental systems, it can’t be turned into actionable insight and used to drive efficiencies or enable greater collaboration between departments. So, in tandem with the creation of individual digital services, we also need to build an information infrastructure that puts our data to good use.

Do your technology choices add up?

A second assumption is whether the technology choices that have served departments well in launching their new digital services will translate equally well to the digital transformation of back-office processes.

In the world of web and mobile development, using open source software is now the default, and it makes sense to build up web development expertise in-house because web applications constantly evolve over time.

However, when it comes to data analytics and decision management, the priorities are a little different. While open source data science tools are increasingly popular, they require a lot of expertise to use effectively—and hiring experienced data scientists can be extremely expensive.

Moreover, in a government context, it’s extremely important to ensure that citizen’s data is used responsibly and to maintain compliance with data privacy and information security regulations. This is very difficult to achieve if each department is cobbling together their own set of open source analytics tools.

The benefits of experience

In the private sector, businesses are increasingly taking the view that building their own data science capability in-house is too much of a distraction from their core business. Instead, they are opting to work with specialist providers who can deliver data analytics and decision support platforms as a service. With a platform as a service approach, these businesses can avoid the dependency on hiring people with data science skills, and can free up their internal IT team from having to manage and maintain yet another technology platform.

This is an area where government departments can learn from the experience—and mistakes—of private sector businesses. By making the right decision at the start of their digital transformation journey, UK government organisations can avoid sinking significant amounts of taxpayers’ money into a suboptimal in-house solution, and obtain a better level of service at much less cost by opting for the platform as a service model.

As a market leader in AI and analytics for Government, SAS works with clients and partners across all industries, and we’re seeing a massive acceleration in the adoption of platform as a service in both the public and private sectors. For example, we now have more than 500 customers leveraging our SAS on Cloud Hosted Managed Service—evidence of a major shift towards cloud-based analytics as our clients progress on their digital transformation journeys.

To further explore how digital transformation is impacting our post-pandemic world, we are conducting an expert study to gather the views of experts from within our partner and customer community, which we will publish later this year. If you would be interested in learning more or taking part in this study, please do not hesitate to contact me at

Alternatively, if you would like to join us on Tuesday 7th September 2021 SAS welcomes you to a UK Government virtual event whereby we will be taking a deeper dive into the importance of digital transformation, in accelerating the UK Government forward. Register here

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About Author

Simon Overton

Director - Enterprise Business Unit

Simon leads SAS UK’s Banking, Life Sciences and Public Sector teams. This team’s priority is to help customers unlock value from traditional on-premise analytic platforms and new innovative digital first, cloud native applications. Simon believes the team's values of curiosity, passion, authenticity and accountability drive business success for customers.

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