There has long been a recognition at a political level of the important role that IT could play in helping rethink and improve our public services, as the recent House of Commons PASC report on Government IT makes clear.
Yet despite the vision that has existed since at least 1996, with the idea of Government Direct (PDF) and its “Electronic Delivery of Government Services“, for some reason a faultline has existed between political aspiration (across all parties) and its delivery on the ground. The current NHS problems with its ambitious e-records programme is an obvious topical example.
I recently referenced (in a presentation at a LSE/Design Council event on designing online social security for the future) the briefing note on “Electronic Government” (PDF) put out by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) back in 1998. It’s worth reading. Although dated in sections, much of it could be republished today and would still seem ambitiously forward-looking.
Consider some of these illustrative extracts for example:
governments have the opportunity to harness ICT to:
- improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the ‘executive functions’ of government including the delivery of public services;
- enable governments to be more transparent to citizens and businesses giving access to more of the information generated by government;
- facilitate fundamental changes in the relationships between the citizen and the state, and between nation states, with implications for the democratic process and structures of government.
Currently, Government uses ICT in many ways, ranging from traditional centralised ‘mainframe’ computers (each running a specific task such as payroll, client records), to the latest applications of intranets and external links to the Internet and World Wide Web. Some Departments have created their own unified electronic systems for internal communications, and semi-automated routines such as ministerial correspondence. Data matching is being pioneered to help in tackling benefit fraud. ICT also has potential to support the policy-making process, by sorting, analysing and summarising large amounts of information and presenting the results in an understandable form
… outside the areas where Government wishes to disseminate information free, pricing policies for its data are a source of contention, where the pressures for more open government and maximising financial returns for Agencies conflict. Such tensions … are relevant to consultation on … Crown Copyright.
… several key problems [need] to be overcome, including the need to uniquely identify individuals who use electronic links to Government
ICTs offer the possibility of improving government activities by re-engineering them along wholly different lines – just as ATMs and telephone banking have changed the ways in which banks and their customers interact. Possibilities considered in the full report are to re-organise along process lines (receipt of revenue, etc.) or repackaging government services in relation to a citizen’s life events. Taking such analyses to their logical conclusion could lead to Government being organised as:
- A set of small ‘policy’ Departments providing policy-related services to Ministers and senior officials.
- A set of Agencies to deliver process-based services to the citizen and business
- A technology-based interface between the citizen/business and the Agencies.
An alternative would be to see government as a means of adding value to services for the citizen, and to reorganise from the viewpoint of this ‘citizen’s supply chain’. This could involve moving away from the traditional measurement of inputs such as departmental budgets to measure outcomes, for example by tracking individuals’ progress through school, continuing education and into employment; or by measuring patient’s health outcome rather than procedures carried out
The report came to some interesting (and somewhat eerily prescient conclusions) namely:
The full report concludes that in the main areas of ‘electronic government’, there are different possible speeds of progress:
- The slowest would be to carry on with ‘business as usual’ and allow Departments and Agencies to adopt ICT to meet their own needs, responding to their various external and internal pressures. Such a policy would, however, risk entrenching existing inefficiencies into new ICT-based systems.
- The ‘middle way’ is for Government to seek better co-ordination and use of resources between Departments and Agencies through joint implementation of ICT projects such as ‘one stop shops’ for small businesses, and other measures. This is broadly the current approach, with CITU [the Cabinet Office's Central IT Unit] acting as a central think-tank/enabler to facilitate effective uptake of ICTs
- The most radical approach would be to ‘re-engineer’ Government Departments and Agencies as described above. Illustrative scenarios derived from these models are developed in the full report, where integrating the currently separate key services could lead to local access akin to a ‘Government General Practitioner’ (GGP)
Unfortunately, the model that has largely predominated is the first of those listed above.
If bridging the gap between aspiration and reality were easy, presumably it would have been done long ago? After all reports over many, many years from the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee have set out clear recommendations on what should be done, together with the clear analysis and prescriptions in the new Public Administration Select Committee report.
Bridging the historic faultline requires the implementation of key recommendations drawn from various reports. Which in turn requires a number of simultaneous initiatives on the ground orchestrated by an experienced and capable team. Simultaneous, rapid progress could be achieved across the key areas identified by PASC, including the implementation of systematic measurement and benchmarking; greater transparency; the development of a concise, core information architecture; market innovation, including the use of smaller contracts and the disaggregation and re-competition of existing contracts; a significant rise in direct use and engagement with SMEs; an outcome-focus that avoids over-specification and instead adopts rapid prototyping and systems iteration; the leveraging of agile practices; a revamp of identity, security and privacy (including the whole area of information assurance); increased user engagement in service (re)design; improving ICT acquisition skills and acting as an ‘intelligent customer’; a stronger role for Senior Responsible Officers; the use of open standards; and a forward looking programme of education and training in the art of the possible for all senior movers and shakers in the civil service.
Sounds a lot? Maybe. But each of these changes is both manageable and achievable. And taken together they would provide a fast, effective way of transforming the current landscape and bridging that traditional and long-standing divide between aspiration and delivery. There are, of course, already encouraging signs of change, ranging from the early work on renegotiating contracts to the focus on open standards and SMEs to skunkworks, dotgovlabs, data.gov.uk, LinkedGov and the recent Alphagov prototyping.
Over coming months, with further changes planned around Whitehall and in the official government response to the PASC report, we will begin to see the extent to which the faultline is likely to be bridged through increased practical, meaningful action on the ground.
Given the extent of cross-party political support for improving the role of IT in our public services, and an enthusiasm for positive change that spans many civil servants and suppliers, right now I’m cautiously optimistic. Although, to put that into perspective, I’ve been optimistic since at least 1996…. and sometimes I wonder whether I should have called this blog Old Technology Observations from a UK perspective, OTOUK, rather than NTOUK …..!