Comment Blog 14 February, 2017

Whitehall's stories of success (I)

This article was first published in Reform’s 2017 Annual Conference brochure. To read more articles, click here.

The Yes Minister stereotype portrays Whitehall as inherently resistant to change. But over the last few years, some branches of government have undergone a quiet revolution.

One catalyst has been digitisation. The customer service of public institutions has been transformed by the Government Digital Service. Applying for a driving licence, for example, now resembles the type of experience you would expect to receive from a high-performing private-sector firm. Most impressive is the speed at which these tools can be designed. GDS built the world-class GOV.UK website with just 16 people in 12 weeks.

Digital has also modernised Whitehall’s back-office functions. Since 2012, departments have had access to the G-Cloud – a streamlined digital marketplace for buying cloud-based products. The major success of G-Cloud has been to boost the number of SMEs bidding for – and winning – central government contracts. Late in 2015, the Government announced its intention to extend the online marketplace to other goods and services that government purchases.

The emergence of digital government has had repercussions for the workforce. Through online services and rolling out real-time information, HMRC reduced its headcount by more than a third – contributing to efficiency savings worth £210 million.

For other departments, the savings that workforce reform can bring was the principal driver of reform. The Department for Education’s staffing review found that only 3 per cent of employees were formally assigned to flexible teams with clearly defined projects; a target to cut staff by 30 per cent was set in April 2013. The Levene Review – arguably a more radical example of transformation – saw the Ministry of Defence become a leaner and higher-skilled organisation.

In his speech to Reform last year, the Cabinet Office Minister Ben Gummer MP argued that “too often the public is made to feel as though they are the servants of the government.” Reformers all over Whitehall are reversing that relationship – long may they continue.