escaping government IT groundhog day

Political interest in using information technology (IT) to improve the UK’s public services shows little sign of abating — but it’s also getting a bit long in the tooth. In my December 2013 CIO column Pantomime villains and heroes I used a few political soundbites that show how all the major parties have been broadly in agreement on this topic since at least 1996.

Some people have asked about the sources I reference in my CIO article, so I thought I’d put the list below together — and also add a few more recent political references.

[IT will] provide better and more efficient services to businesses and to citizens, improve the efficiency and openness of government administration, and secure substantial cost savings for the taxpayer.” Year: 1996. Government: Conservative. Source: Government Direct
 “[IT will help us] make sure that public service users, not providers, are the focus, by matching services more closely to people’s lives … [and] …deliver public services that are high quality and efficient.” Year: 1999. Government: Labour. Source: Modernising Government
 “[IT will] allow us to give citizens what they now demand: public services responsive to their needs and driven by them. It provides us with the means to deliver public services in a way that maintains their quality but brings down their cost.” Year: 2009. Government: Labour. Source: Putting the frontline first: smarter government.
 “[IT will enable us to] deliver better public services for less cost. ICT can release savings by increasing public sector productivity and efficiency … [and] will enable the delivery of public services in very different ways to the past.” Year: 2011. Government: Coalition. Source: Government ICT Strategy.
 “… technology can be a powerful tool and reshape how government and citizens interact with each other. We must see digital government as a way of empowering people – service users and public sector employees, citizens and consumers – and enabling cost reduction in the process.” Year: 2013. Labour Party announcement of a Digital Government review – “Digital Britain 2015.” 

All of these sentiments seem to echo an even earlier political interest in science and technology — Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s 1963 speech, which asserted that:

“The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry.”
(Walden, 2006)

Wilson’s speech is often used today as convenient shorthand for the idea of the “white heat of technology” being harnessed to help modernise and improve the UK. While that’s a useful summary, it risks missing Wilson’s important recognition of tackling out-dated models “on either side of industry” — both private and public sectors. In many ways, the failure to modernise and reform out-dated models in the public sector — and its private sector supply chain — has been a major contributory factor to the failed attempts to use IT as a lever of public sector modernisation.

The lethargic pace of improvements in the public sector compares poorly with the significant revolution in the private sector that has been enabled by IT over the past few decades — everything from on-demand music, films and TV to iPhones and iPads, to ATMs and 24-hour online banking, to Twitter, Facebook, Tripadvisor and Patient Opinion. IT has disrupted and changed beyond recognition numerous industries and businesses, challenging once dominant brands such as HMV, Kodak and Blockbuster and replacing them with organisations such as Netflix, Flickr and Amazon that are byproducts of the digital age. It has also developed a range of IT models — everything from agile to six sigma — rather than the one-size-fits-all waterfall model that has all too often been (poorly) applied to government programmes in the past.

The leisurely progress of the public sector has certainly not been caused by any lack of ambition or public funding — quite the opposite: eye-watering amounts of public funding have been thrown at IT over many decades, yet with remarkably little to showcase in terms of meaningful, widespread improvements in our public services.

This apparent inability to exploit IT in a genuinely transformational way in the public sector sits uneasily with the UK’s reputation as a pioneer in computing. After all, it was the UK that brought the world figures such as Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing, and innovations from Colossus to the BBC Micro, Sinclair ZX-80 and most recently the Raspberry Pi. Add to this the fact that the civil service itself was an early pioneer in the use of computers and something has clearly gone seriously wrong.

The cross-party House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) report on Government IT (PDF) along with numerous National Audit Office and various Public Accounts Committee reports over many years have identified various reasons for this mismatch between political vision and its implementation. Much of this centres on the dual problem of the way that IT has not been seen as a core competence in Whitehall combined with its wholesale outsourcing to a small group of large suppliers. The cross-party House of Commons PASC report found that:

The lack of IT skills in government and over-reliance on contracting out is a fundamental problem which has been described as a “recipe for rip-offs” … government is currently over-reliant on a small “oligopoly” of large suppliers, which some witnesses referred to as a “cartel”. Whether or not this constitutes a cartel in legal terms, current arrangements have led to a perverse situation … benchmarking studies have demonstrated that government pays substantially more for IT when compared to commercial rates. The Government needs to break out of this relationship.

Earlier, the Digital Britain report of 2009 had recognised that:

Government will need to become genuinely “of the web”, not simply “on the web”. That means designing new services and transactions around the web platform, rather than simply adapting paper based, analogue, processes … Bringing about this scale of change will require significant leadership and focus and a willingness to put this reform at the heart of Government activity as opposed to tacking it onto the side of existing ways of working.

Here was public recognition that it was not IT that was the root cause of itself the problem — but reform of the very nature of our public services, and the way they were designed and operated. Yet how would such a major programme of redesign and improvements in our public services ever be possible if a major part of that programme — the IT — was outsourced and not under expert and experienced public sector control and design?

Martha Lane-Fox was one of several advisors on Labour’s Digital Britain report and went on to develop the influential “Directgov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution” report for the coalition government. This led to the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS) and a move to bring expertise back in-house, moving away from the failed and expensive model of simplistic outsourcing of IT to large suppliers. 

The current programme is effectively a pincer movement that relies on two complementary initiatives to work together in support of each other — and which together seek to bring about the cultural improvements required to deliver on the long-held political vision set out in the quotes above.

On one side are the changes of the past few years that the NAO has examined — the efficiency savings that aim to remove waste and duplication and bad practices, including breaking up major contracts and making them into more competitive lots that more companies, including SMEs, will be able to bid for. The intent is to move the UK away from seeing everything as a procurement problem (and in particular its over-dependency on the handful of corporate IT suppliers that have dominated for so long), and to introduce genuinely open competition and innovation into the marketplace.

On the other side is the equally important focus on improving the design, operation and delivery of public services, spearheaded by the Government Digital Service. If the spend controls are the stick, the digital by default initiative is the carrot — encouraging a renaissance of skills and expertise within the public sector and enabling government to retake control of its own destiny. Although notionally about introducing best practices in user driven needs and the iterative development of solutions, this initiative also carries with it equally important aspirations to improve capabilities throughout Whitehall — including ensuring that Permanent Secretaries and their direct reports do not see technology as something merely to be thrown at a project later downstream as in the past, but as part of the very nature of how modern, twenty-first century services can be entirely redesigned from the ground up. Digital is becoming an integral, pivotal part of both public service and civil service reform — rather than something to be thrown at a large external supplier: its success would fulfil that long-held dual aspiration, of better designed, lower cost digital public services — and the redirection of  resource to our frontline services.

It is this attempt to address what Wilson referred to as the “restrictive practices [and] outdated methods” both within the private and public sectors that will determine whether government and its use of IT can finally succeed in escaping the groundhog day of repeated optimistic visions for its potential and failed implementation. Success relies on re-engineering and rethinking our public services from the ground-up based on users’ needs — not in merely throwing IT at a broken system.

If it is to succeed, this pincer movement requires very careful nurturing and dogged perseverance. The same type of cross-party consensus that has underpinned the vision for IT now needs to be extended to its implementation. Such a cross-party consensus is important to help expedite the necessary structural, organisational and cultural changes across both private and public sectors — finally holding out the prospect of delivering that long-held promise of better designed public services.

This is too important to be allowed to become a party political issue: if that were to happen, instead of meaningful delivery of better public services, we’ll probably find ourselves in another twenty years looking at 40 years worth of wonderful, aspiring soundbites — and regretting what could have been.

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