Public Services

The déjà vu of digitising government

Rob Anderson Published 28 March 2018

Rob Anderson casts a former civil servant’s knowing eye over a new manifesto for better public services, and highlights the importance of the people factor


Two fine academics, Professor Mark Thompson and Jerry Fishenden this week launched a 'Manifesto for Better Public Services' at the Institute for Government in an event attended by the great and the good from both demand and supply sides of public sector IT provision. Co-written by them with contributions from a wealth of others steeped in the delivery of technology to support public policy, the document is accompanied by a Green Paper which puts forward the argument that a fresh approach is required to transform services for the 21st Century.

Whilst few, if any of us in the audience were around when the Welfare state was born, with which the authors draw comparisons, the evidence put forward was nonetheless familiar. Haven't we been here before? Liam Maxwell's paper "Better for Less" from 2010 (in collaboration with our erstwhile proponents of today) and the IfG's own piece "System Error" from the following year are but two publications that put forward similar cases. That's not to say that the arguments are flawed; moreover it suggests that the same old failings are being repeated and it's the current system of public administration that is at fault.

But how will that change? Francis Maude made a valiant effort to shake up at least central government IT practices during his reign as Minister for the Cabinet Office. The Government Digital Service was formed and proved to be a valid disruptor, introducing new development practices and shaking up the comfy cartel of Systems Integrators that dominated provision of technology. Momentum was lost however and the components of Government as a Platform, Gov.Verify in particular, have failed to materialise as the robust building blocks they were envisaged to be. Lessons were seemingly not learned from the digital exemplars built by GDS and whilst a new way of working has been established, it hasn't driven a step-change in the delivery of services demanded by today's tech-savvy citizens.

Having worked in the civil service myself, I believe we are still perpetuating the same mistakes because a 'Not invented here' attitude persists that is a barrier to true cross-department collaboration. Maude also surrounded himself with people who took on the mantle of Government HQ. In an archaic federated organisational structure where all the power (and cash) is held by Permanent Secretaries of each individual Department that was almost guaranteed to be counter-productive. Furthermore he, or rather his henchmen, used rather more stick than carrot in their dealings with suppliers. In exchange for concessions on pricing or contract renegotiation, vendors were invited to submit their ideas for innovative ways to redefine government IT delivery as a 'Schedule D' addendum to their memoranda of understanding. Many of the so-called bad boy outsourcers indeed did produce creative ideas that could have brought about radical change. Sadly, to this day, many of those proposals remain locked in a Whitehall cupboard unexplored.

The real crux of the problem of service delivery is actually not technology at all; it's about the people and the way they communicate and interact. As Lesley Cowley, Chair of DVLA put it so eloquently whilst providing the opposition in the IfG debate, "Transformation is more about anthropology than technology". If only there were a dozen or so other permsecs in the mould of Claire Moriaty or Richard Heaton, then half the battle would be won already.

Thompson and Fishenden are advocating what they term #legogovernment - where each back office process is a common building block to be built once (or bought) then stored in a digital commons for re-use and plugged together for rapid deployment of any public service. It's all very laudable but it needs a politician of the calibre of William Beveridge to stand up and be counted to own it and drive the change. I see no-one in the current landscape who is either prepared or capable of doing that.

Rob Anderson is Principal Analyst of Global Data Public Sector


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