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Digital by Default, but Not Smart Enough: Hits and Misses of the UK Government Digital Strategy

by Andrea Di Maio  |  November 9, 2012  |  14 Comments

The UK cabinet office just published its Government Digital Strategy, which culminates its focus on all services to be “digital by default”. The strategy states 11 principles and 14 actions to shape how UK central government departments and agencies will embrace digitalization of their services and improve uptake by citizens and businesses.

What is good

The strategy exudes the drive that the cabinet minister, Francis Maude, has given to digital government, shown already by the appointment of high calibers like Tim Berners-Lee, Mike Bracken and Martha Fox in leading roles. Amongst its most positive aspects:

  • It puts digital government square at the center of the top priorities of each department, by requiring the appointment of senior executives as digital leaders, by establishing digital service managers, by mandating the redesign of high-volume transaction services.
  • It righty focuses on departments with high transaction volumes, where the digital channel can have the most immediate and evident impact both on constituent service and on efficiency.
  • While pursuing full digitalization, it recognizes the importance of “assisted digital” for those who are more reluctant or less capable to access online, by engaging both staff and intermediaries.
  • It aims at defining and deploying common technology platforms, which is likely to reduce diversity and costs and to ease interoperability.
  • It provides (and promises more) guidance in terms of governance, prioritization, measurement, and promotes transparency in sharing performance data.


What is less good

The document shows several shortcomings, some of which are almost surprising, given the maturity of this theme in the UK government:

  • There is almost no mention of furthering joined-up government: the transformation of transactional services seem confined to the specific departments and agencies that deliver them today, without emphasis on integration and co-development.
  • Other countries, such as the US, Denmark or the Netherlands, are taking steps toward a data-centric transformation, where the focus is on a platform of open (both public and non public) data with web APIs and application services developed around those. The UK strategy, despite the work done on open services and on identity assurance, seems to take a more traditional approach: in one of the annexes it mentions open standards and APIs, but there is no evidence of a modern data-centric approach.
  • Despite the objectives of increasing the digital capabilities in the civil service, there is very little on the digitalization of the workplace and the role that individual employees can have in leading the transformation of their job. The strategy is imbalanced toward transactions, and does not address employee-intensive interactions, such as case management.
  • It addresses social media in a very traditional way, focusing on citizen participation in policy making and missing almost entirely how social media can transform transactional and other services, as well as the role of employees on social media as key component of the connective tissue between government and citizens.
  • Although justified by the desire to move departments forward, the strategy implementation has the risk of being too focused on compliance and central control by the Cabinet Office.


The strategy is a good document that did not consider digital government beyond constituent transactions or consolidation of web sites, hence missing how to better equip employees and make human-intensive interactions more innovative. Oddly enough, it has several repetitions, as if it has been rushed to publication. It would be great if – going forward – the Cabinet Office could find a better balance between the desire to mandate and dictate, and a more organic and bottom-up transformation process.

Category: e-government  europe-and-it  

Tags: digital-government  uk-government  

Andrea Di Maio
Managing VP
15 years at Gartner
28 years IT industry

Andrea Di Maio is a managing vice president for public sector in Gartner Research, covering government and education. His personal research focus is on digital government strategies strategies, Web 2.0, open government, cloud computing, the business value of IT, smart cities, and the impact of technology on the future of government Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Digital by Default, but Not Smart Enough: Hits and Misses of the UK Government Digital Strategy

  1. Chris Conder says:

    Bit of a funny report when they haven’t grasped the fact that because we haven’t got fit for purpose infrastructure nearly half the population can’t be digital citizens. Even in urban areas line lengths, cheap ISPs, faulty cables and home wiring mean many remain analogue, and will continue that way for another decade because funding is going into cabinets instead of new fibre networks.
    Government is being conned by clever marketing.
    We can’t be part of the digital revolution until we have next generation access, and that can’t come through a phone line…

    Digital by default will only happen when access is ubiquitous. Affordable. Easy. Listen to the grassroots. Bottom up. Do the hardest to reach places first. The new networks will grow organically, both the pipes and the people.

  2. […] The UK cabinet office just published its Government Digital Strategy, which culminates its focus on all services to be “digital by default”. The strategy states 11 principles and 14 actions to shape how UK central government …  […]

  3. Merici says:

    Hi –

    Quick question(s) with regards to your “What is less good,” first bullet point. I’ve worked in and around government tech for 4 years (since the start of the Obama administration) and have consistently seen people from within and outside gov raise the “centralization” of services, websites, etc as a goal or desirable outcome.

    Here in London, one knows the NHS provides different services from say, the Foreign Commonwealth Office. Why would I integrate my passport service with the same place that I renew my NHS card? (I’m actually American and live here now, but the same questions are relevant in the states, only much more complicated because of the size of US fed gov)

    1. Is there evidence that supports a common desire from actual users/taxpayers/citizens to have centralized services? Any research you can point to?

    2. Is there a good example of this anywhere – either private or public sector?

    3. Are people usually unable to find their services online? In the states, I know I pay my federal taxes to the IRS, so why would I want to go to (or other/similar/nonexistent site) to file my taxes? tl;dr is this actually a problem?

    I don’t know if you ever answer blog comments or not, but I thought I would ask if you knew the answers to any of these questions as I generally hear a need for centralization with no supporting evidence.

  4. @Marici – Thanks for your comment and yes, I do answer :)
    I do agree – and have mentioned this extensively in my blog and in my gartner research – that centralization and integration do not necessarily help. However if you want to provide greater citizen convenience as well as reduce operational costs, better coordination across domains and tiers is advisable.
    There are plenty of great examples around the world: I would suggest you take a look at BizPal in Canada as a great one, where they have integrated access to business permitting and licensing across government tiers.
    I am with you on point 3, and I have been saying for a long time (actually since 2000) that government portals address the wrong issue, since people will most likely either search on the web, or ask their online friends or use intermediaries. One of the good things about this strategy is that it does mention intermediarie, although it could be better in terms of how they are engaged.

  5. […] research analyses the UK cabinet Office’s recent “Government Digital Strategy”. His article, Digital by Default, but Not Smart Enough: Hits and Misses of the UK Government Digital Strategy analyses “what is good” and “what is less good” about the strategy. This entry was posted […]

  6. […]  Digital by Default, but Not Smart Enough: Hits and Misses of the UK Government Digital Strategy This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← 2011 updated National Biometrics Challenge report identifies key challenges […]

  7. Tim Lloyd says:

    I’m not sure the strategy misses all those points. Capability within departments and agencies is a huge part of the strategy – it acknowledges that this is central to success. This includes creating and delivering better transactions, but also empowering individual staff to use digital tools to improve productivity and represent their organisation online. See GDS’s work earlier this year to update guidance for civil servants.
    As a member of staff at BIS I generally feel that there has been a bottom-up approach to many elements of the strategy, and there are examples of this against each action.

  8. Mark Foden says:

    I am wondering what Universal Credit ( would look like with the principles of the new strategy applied.

  9. […] Di Maio of Gartner has written a useful critique which argues that the strategy is ‘smart, but not smart enough’.  Two criticism are […]

  10. @Tim – I assume you are referring to Action 03 (All departments will ensure that they have appropriate digital capability in-house, including specialist skills) and Action 04 (Cabinet Office will support improved digital capability across departments). However, if one reads the text AND the cases provided, it is all about developing tools rather than describing how non-digital natives can be encourages to actually use tools in the normal course of business. The kind of skills that I was referring to are those required to use and not to develop: the choice of wording and the examples seem to be definitely geared toward the latter.

  11. John Jackson says:

    I agree there is much to admire in the Government Digital Strategy.(GDS) It is a purposeful and clear strategy but … its really a strategy for government channel shift with a focus on efficiency. Contrast that with the Case fior Universal Digitisation which makes a compelling case for growth enabled , amongst other things, by e-skills, getting businesses on line and thereby increasing GDP by £63 billion. For me the GDS , consciously in some respects, doesn’t touch on e-skills, digital economy/industry, digital workplace, smart assets, new business models for government or integration. A great Government Channel Strategy – a but not a Digital Strategy or blueprint for Government (at least yet …)

  12. […] digital-by-default-but-not-smart-enough-hits-and-misses-of-the-uk-government-digital-strategy AndreaDiMaio: Digital by Default, but Not Smart Enough: Hits and Misses of the #UK Government Digital Strategy – #gov20 […]

  13. […] Gartner’s Andrea Di Maio views the strategy as a positive start, but he does not believe that it fully addresses all concerns. He lauds the strategy’s placement of “digital government square at the center of the top priorities of each department”; focus on departments with high transaction volumes; recognition of the importance of “assisted digital” for those who are not as comfortable using digital services; embrace of common technology platforms; and “guidance in terms of governance, prioritization, measurement” and promotion of “transparency in sharing performance data.” […]

  14. Indeed the stratetegy has much to commend it and I admire the energy and focus that Martha Lane-Fox and her colleagues at the Cabinet Office bring to the issue.

    Whilst much of the debate on digital is around infrastructure and access to services, I believe that this does not tell the whole story, just like building a transport infrastructure without carriages or trains does not create an ecosystem.

    Having worked in the UK and Dutch government service arenas, one thing I have learned from the Dutch is that they tend to think holistically about ‘Total -Service’ (read Total -Football if you can remeber Mr J Cryuff). They recognise its about the end to end service experience that counts not just the number of website visits or e-transactions delivered.

    This is where government services are vastly different from commercial ones. Many of them are complex, require each citizen’s case to be treated uniquely and are also more about providing correct advice and information as prerequisite to automating a transaction.

    For example two services we have been involved in illustrate this well. is a pure information only service that provides potential immigrants what they can expect in terms of public services when they arrive depending upon their circumstances. In the same way EnvironmentOnline allows citizens to get planning permits for any kind of construction from a railwayline to a roof extension.

    Both these systems save $100s of millions in not just eliminating transaction costs, but use semantic rules to eliminate the advisory costs that still permeate many UK back office departments. Like the midfield in football, is the mid/back office that often determines how good a service really is. So let us think total service and not just see accesing the front of the website as the end of the journey.

    As Andrea says we can learn more from the Dutch than just how to play football!

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