Government Digital is in danger of losing its way

I attended a really energised round table media debate this morning hosted by Policy Exchange and EMC, looking at how technology can reinvent government.  Some great speakers addressed some very important issues, some of the themes being that we’re not moving fast enough, citizens need to drive Digital as well, and – perhaps most importantly – that we must consider the broader implications of Digital for public service organisations, as a whole – including the way in which peoples’ jobs will be changed as a result.

Here was my own contribution:

Govt Digital is in danger of losing its way.

Digital is absolutely founded on the realisation 5 years ago that govt had spent 20 years indulging itself by building luxury bespoke IT in a sort of frenzied splurge, instead of consuming standard stuff like its citizens.

This was expensive and often didn’t work – but there were 2 bigger problems about all this bespoke stuff. The first was that it encouraged nest-making behaviour by departments and local authorities as each entrenched its own special way of doing things: not a reinvention, but an entrenchment of govt.

The second was that with each luxury, bespoke tech indulgence, the public sector decoupled itself further & further from the emerging global mainstream, resulting in technology that was out of date almost at delivery, and that required constant maintenance and upgrades. And of course, nothing talked to anything else.

To address this, the Tories’ policy was founded squarely on progressive adoption of open standards – i.e. the need for govt to exercise discipline, stop indulging itself and consume, rather than build its tech, unless absolutely necessary. This, not agile, was the foundational philosophy of the govt IT strategy. If govt was a group of companies owned by the same set of shareholders, those shareholders would rightly demand that these companies co-operated and shared capabilities, rather than pretending that each one had its own shareholders. In response, Digital grew out of a realisation that as shareholders, taxpayers needed to demand that the ‘govt group’ started behaving like a group & less like a set of fiefdoms: and that new, digitally-enabled business models could help with a general reinvention of the way government behaves.

The problem is that reinventing govt is fundamentally a political, not a tech, issue. Sure, the tech can help – but we must remember that all that redundancy and self-indulgence supports jobs. Digital threatens to disrupt hierarchies, merge departments, and change the way things have been done for over 150 years; it’s ‘real’ reinvention, rather than the pretend-‘transformation’ (i.e. Leaning & outsourcing) we’ve been hearing about for so long. Predictably enough therefore, the current emphasis within Digital has shifted to “agile” – because agile involves building your own stuff again, rather than consuming, and leaves all those underlying hierarchies fundamentally undisturbed. It’s funky, yet unthreatening: the perfect stall. 

Cabinet Office has undoubtedly achieved much with Digital – often, is must be remembered, in the face of a hostile reception by both industry and government.  However, there is a danger now that, rather than paying all those SIs to build stuff, Cabinet Office is simply growing its own SI to build stuff – and the fact it’s using open source makes little difference. The tech is still special, requires upgrades & maintenance, and the UK remains in its cul-de-sac, decoupled from the innovation of the global marketplace.

In response, I argue that Digital has a ying and a yang: for me, agile is nonsense without self-control, re-use, and architecture – and discussion of these foundations is almost entirely non-existent. As shareholders of govt, we need to wake up to the fact that our Board members don’t get it – probably aren’t even listening – and that our employees will resist digital reinvention at every turn. Digital is fundamentally not about exciting new interfaces with the citizen – but about fundamental business model change. Digital is therefore disingenuous without an open, honest debate about how reinventing govt will reshape the public sector and alter the nature of public sector jobs.

So my challenge is that the promise of ‘Digital’ is already starting to fade. There are some notable exceptions, but from a Digital point of view we are being badly governed by our political masters who have little interest in any of this. As citizens we need to demand better of our leaders: don’t just do the easy, shiny bits: tackle the hard bits as well.

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