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What government might look like in 2030

Earlier this week, I was asked to speak on this subject at TechUK’s Public Sector 2030 event. I don’t claim any special ability to see the future, and I think predicting specific technological advances is probably a fool’s errand - but I was happy to offer my best guess for the broader themes.

Here’s what I said.

Slide from Stephen Foreshew-Cain's talk - shows a very simple timeline 'Now - 2030'

Good morning everyone, and thanks for having me here.

The year 2030 is less than 15 years away. It doesn’t sound like that long, but in terms of technology, it will be a whole new world.

After all, just look 15 years back - 15 years ago, the web was brand new, and government didn't really know what to do with it.

Broadband connections were few and far between, wifi was unheard of. Smartphones hadn't been invented, and nor had social media. Cloud computing and virtualised infrastructure were in their infancy, and services we have today that let us collaborate with colleagues or connect with customers in real-time didn’t exist.

Back then, you still bought your music on CDs. Even the most visionary scoffed at the idea we might one day rent our music. And in just 15 years we've gone from CDs to ripping, downloading, now streaming. The music industry isn’t about owning music any more, it's about experiencing it.

Knowing which innovations will be the ones to stick with and change how we live our lives, from the perspective of today, is mostly unknowable.

There will be new technologies for sure, and they will bring new cultural norms, new ways of communicating and sharing, and new ways of experiencing government. So when I think about government in 2030, I don’t think about what it will passively become, but what we will actively make it.

From government of the industrial age to government of the digital age

By 2030, we could (and should) be seeing the biggest change to the Civil Service since the Northcote-Trevelyan report. 
The last major revolution to the Civil Service was actually its creation in the middle of the 19th century. 
Trevelyn’s report was the culmination of various efforts to reform government to reflect a changed world. He wanted to create a Civil Service fit for the age (the industrial age of the mid 1850s).

The report called for revision of:

The public establishments as to place them on the footing best calculated for the efficient discharge of their important functions, according to the actual circumstances of the present time.

The changes called for were important, necessary, far-reaching and fundamental.

But that was 160 years ago. And the civil service we know today has not fundamentally changed since then. 
It is no longer fit, in Trevelyan’s words, for the circumstances of the present time, let alone for 15 years hence. 
And that’s largely because it hasn’t needed, for most of the past 160 years, to adapt quickly to an ever increasing pace of change.

Not government that’s changed, but government that can change

The 1st of January 2030 is just under 5000 days away (from 10 May, when I gave this talk). That’s only 2 more planned General Elections - one in 2020, another in 2025.

The biggest problem we in government face between now and then isn’t the change itself - it’s that everything will change, all the time. We know the change will happen, we know it will be inevitable and unavoidable, we know it will happen faster. It will happen whether government wants it to or not.

It doesn’t matter what government looks like in 2030; what matters is how dynamic and responsive it is.

Not the what we do, but how we do it.

So, the biggest problem we face is re-shaping ourselves so that we’re better placed to change as rapidly as the world around us.

Getting to this position isn’t about simply replacing the technology. We have to think deeper. New versions of the solutions to today’s problems are not the answer.

Government of the internet

We started the process of change 5 years ago, but we started 5 years (at least) behind everyone else. We’re catching up as fast as we can.

And that’s the work currently underway in GDS, and in departments and agencies right the way across government. They’re building the foundation for a government of the internet. I spelled it out in this blog post, just a few weeks ago.

The strategy remains delivery:

  • we’re setting and defining standards for whole services and good service design
  • we’re building, or helping departments to build, new common components that make services easier to assemble - a shared digital infrastructure
  • we’re making sure the civil service has the people and skills it needs to make all this happen

That’s the strategy. We’re delivering it now.

The formal strategy document will be published in due course. But a strategy document doesn’t matter as much as running code - such as the notifications platform which will be going into public beta shortly. We’re trying to get a lot of this done in the next 5 years. I’d like to see a lot of it ready by 2020.

Bold predictions

be bold poster

So, enough scene-setting. I’m going to be bold and share with you the things I think and hope we’re going to see by 2030:

We will have fixed the basics

By 2030 - before that, long before that in fact - we will have fixed the basics. 
You know what I mean: the stuff we’re talking about for a while now. 
We won’t have to be constantly encouraging people to put users first, or to work in an agile way, to iterate - all these things will be the default, the new normal. They will be the new standard behaviour, to the point where we won’t have to think about them any more.

“Digital” won’t be a thing any more

This is probably the most fundamental of those basics. By 2030, we won’t talk about digital this or digital that, because everything will be digital. 
I’m not claiming that we’ll have reached the magical, mythical paperless society. I don’t think that will ever happen, to be honest.

Government services will still rely on paper sometimes. We shall still be sending letters to people in the post, if they prefer to be contacted that way. People will still be filling out paper forms, some of the time.

But the vast majority of services will simply be digital. They will have been designed that way, because digital by default, like “users first”, will be the accepted way of doing things.

Government will have a more diverse, digitally skilled workforce

We’ll have to be employing people who understand the internet and understand users – right across the Civil Service, not just in teams of technologists.

The best way to do that is to make sure that the diversity of the civil service reflects the diversity of the people we are here to serve.

In the words of DWP’s Kit Collingwood-Richardson:

Diversity is the lifeblood of a Civil Service which represents wider humanity.

Between now and 2030, we will have to get better at hiring the right people, and encouraging them to stay. And we’ll have to get better at training the people we’ve got, so that they can put their years of experience in services and on the frontline to good use.

Policy making will be service design

Policy making will be service design, and service design will be making policy. Ideas and implementation will be much closer together. In fact, there won’t be any new ideas without some sort of implementation. Thinking in code. Iterating in public.

By 2030 policy making will be minimally designed and built as a framework which allows flexibility and feedback, not as a fait accompli.

The way that the law is made will have changed. Today we are often blocked by the stuff written on the faces of bills about which we have limited understanding of feasibility, but by 2030 we will have legislation that supports service delivery, not blocks it.

White papers & green papers would be replaced by public prototypes of new or iterated services.

Public consultation will be massively changed: at the moment you have to be an engaged citizen to wade through consultation docs - we don't engage those whose views matter most, like vulnerable people. That means we're not consulting with integrity. We‘ll have smaller, rapid, frequent consultation.

We will be working not in a sequence, but a cycle. The old-style, top-down, predictive policy making model that identifies the “big idea” and doesn’t consider service delivery as the best source of evidence on what works and what doesn’t, just isn’t going to cut it.

If we get all this right, public services will be so easy to build, they could become almost disposable.

Imagine being able to create a new service in hours, not months. Imagine being able to create two slightly different versions of a service, and see which one works best. And then, having done the research and iterated and improved the better one, simply killing off the one that didn’t make the cut.

Imagine being able to do that at negligible cost.

Platform thinking will be everywhere

Of course, everything will be made using interconnected digital components, built to appropriate standards.

There will be software platforms, data registers, standards, patterns, services, and skills that service teams in all departments can simply plug into their new services quickly and easily, whenever they need to.

Needless to say: the cost savings are likely to be significant.

Data-driven government

In 15 years from now, the work we’ve already begun in the government data programme will be having far-reaching effects.

Better use of government data will change the world for business, for government itself, and for citizens:

businesses will be able to depend on better data infrastructure, which will make the UK a better place to do business
  • government will be in a position to innovate like never before
  • we shall be able to offer users services that are tailored to them and their needs ...

The UK will be a smartphone state

… services that will be available to them, where they are.

Our minister’s vision of a “smartphone state” will be reality.

By 2030, most of the time, most users will be able to find services that meet most of their needs - on their smartphone, or on whatever equivalent device exists by then.

And by that last point, I mean: government will be so different in 15 years, that it won’t matter if something has replaced the smartphone as the consumer gadget of choice.

We will have learned enough by then to be able to adapt.

Services will shape government, not the other way round

In order to achieve all of that, government will have to be simpler, smaller, faster and more agile.

It will have to be a more flexible, adaptable organisation. One that doesn’t fear new technological change, but embraces it.

The result will be services that shape government, not the other way round.

I believe that by 2030, the organisational structure of government departments and agencies will be much simpler, and radically different. Parts of Whitehall will no longer exist, at least not in the same way that we see them today. The departmental silos we’re all accustomed to now will have faded away. 
There will be a smaller administrative centres, and a new culture based on evidence-based decision making and trust between teams.

Government will be smaller, faster, more flexible

And the result of that effort?

We will have transformed the relationship between citizen and state

We’ll have reached the goal, as described by our Minister, Matt Hancock.

When you need to do something that requires you to deal with government, you heart won’t sink. You will know that whatever you need to do it will be simple, it will be clear, and it will be fast. 
We will have transformed the relationship between citizen and state.

Even then, we won’t be “done”

Slide from Stephen Foreshew-Cain's talk - "even then we won't be done"

And even then, we won’t be “done”.

Even in this transformed future, we won’t be able to sit back at the end of 2030 and declare ourselves finished.

Why not? You know why not. Because of this:

Iterate. Then iterate again. Number five in the design principles.

Because of the fifth of our design principles, the rules that keep us on the right path:
Iterate. Then iterate again.

In 2030, and in the years that follow, we shall still be iterating. We shall still be doing the user research, doing the hard work to make things simple.

There’s no definition of done. We’re never done - it’s about the journey, not the destination. And on the 1 January 2030, 4986 days from today, we will be working out how we can make things even better in 2031.

Start now

start now

Everything I’ve just described will be the new normal by 2030. It will be very different, but it will be very much better for us, for our work, and for the users we’re here for.

The scale of the challenge ahead is so enormous that we can’t afford to wait.

As I’ve said before, this isn’t about simply replacing the technology. We have to think deeper, we have to be more radical. We have to be bolder. New versions of the solutions to today’s problems are not the answer to tomorrow’s challenges.

It’s the role of GDS and our digital leaders to design and deliver the government of the future. We need our technology leaders to deliver technology which helps us do that.

As my predecessor said, and I have oft quoted, technology is a fourth order question:

  • user need
  • minister need
  • operational need
  • technology need

Let’s keep it that way. And whatever our ambitions for 2030, let’s start now.

Thanks for listening.

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1 comment

  1. Comment by JA posted on


    Having attended the PS2030 conference and read the blog, I completely agree with your comments about thinking deeper, being more radical and bolder,

    but I believe the current emphasis on digital transformation is missing the real opportunity which is to "transform digital".

    It really is a case of "physician heal thyself" if the full potential of today's global computing platform is to be realised for public services.

    That require a very different approach, as covered in the linked material.

    What is the vehicle for debating such alternatives with yourself?

    As ever,