more thoughts on government in the digital age

Digitizing Government SmallThe book I’ve written with Alan Brown and Mark Thompson — Digitizing Government — is out. It’s here on Amazon UK and here as a Kindle edition: although it’s also here if you’d rather order online AND support your local independent bookshop. (The US version is due out 26th December — on Amazon US here).

We had a great open event launch party for the book last week at which a variety of distinguished panelists participated — Chi Onwurah MP, Liam Maxwell (UK Government CTO), Paul Brewer (Director for Digital Resources at Adur and Worthing Councils) and Paul Shetler (Chief Digital Officer at the Ministry of Justice), along with my fellow co-author Mark Thompson.

Our book looks at how the public sector needs to re-design itself for the digital age to help cultivate better public services. This isn’t just in terms of technology but about the behaviour, culture and re-designed services of truly digital organisations. In fact, much of what we focus on is as relevant for any large organisation struggling to make the most of “digital”.

I thought I’d set out in some occasional blogs a few background thoughts, themes and ideas that help provide additional backstory to some of the critiques, observations and recommendations we make in the book. This time I’m going to kick-off by looking at “Outsourcing” and “The Wrong Debate?” — with more to come in random future blogs across a wide range of topics that play into this space …


The undifferentiated outsourcing that has dominated public sector thinking has been a blunt tool often inexpertly used. This isn’t to say there’s no role for outsourcing — far from it: it can play an essential role. But it needs to be intelligently applied as only one of many possible options, and people need to understand when it’s appropriate and when it isn’t.

Traditional suppliers are understandably keen to promote the role of outsourcing in helping fix some of the public sector’s many problems. In a 2011 interview, Capita called for more outsourcing of public sector roles to the private sector, stating that “90 per cent of the UK’s 500,000 civil servants were performing back and mid-office functions, which could easily be better managed by the private sector” [1].

Such a shift from public to private sector of clerical, support and administrative roles may or may not end up being more efficient and help save costs, but doesn’t really start the discussion in the right place. Undifferentiated outsourcing of what’s already within the public sector as it’s currently configured would potentially repeat what IT outsourcing did: hand another arbitrary organisation a set of people, systems, processes and costs frozen at a single moment in time.

Outsourcing applied simplistically becomes a costly displacement activity and does little to tackle the real issue — how public sector services can best be designed and delivered in order to better meet user need. Instead, these frozen services, with perhaps some marginal but largely inconsequential savings, are then merely re-sold by the private sector, as-is, back to the public sector. Worse, it becomes far more difficult (if not impossible) to sensibly redesign the end to end service given that parts of it are now under entirely separate ownership and management.

I’m not sure anyone really wins in this situation: the private sector company is often frustrated by the cumbersome and micro-managed contracts that prevent them innovating, and the public sector is frustrated by the belated realisation that little of the benefits it anticipated have come to fruition. As one Dell executive complained in 2010:

“Government expects its outsourcing service provider to maintain the complexity rather than to simplify and standardise the work processes,” he said.

“Processes and people are moved to the provider in their existing state and are independently managed next to countless similar processes of other companies. Consequently, the cost and service benefits of standardisation and simplification are lost.” [2]

It’s time we moved away from starting with any “solution” — such as outsourcing — without first understanding why, how and when it might be best applied: and when it might not be appropriate at all.

The wrong debate — public v private?

We all too often seem to end up in a very binary, Christmas pantomime-like debate about the role of public and private sectors: public sector good (hurrah!), private sector bad (boo!); or, just as inane, public sector inefficient (boo!), private sector efficient (hurrah!).

In describing the transition to digital government [3], Tim O’Reilly tries to move things away from the binary, bunkered down attitudes that often seem to prevent us properly discussing how we can get the best possible publicly funded services for citizens:

“…The idea that we have to choose between government providing services to citizens and leaving everything to the private sector is a false dichotomy. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t develop hundreds of millions of websites; Google didn’t develop thousands of Google Maps mashups; Apple developed only a few of the tens of thousands of applications for the iPhone.

Being a platform provider means government stripped down to the essentials. A platform provider builds essential infrastructure, creates core applications that demonstrate the power of the platform and inspire outside developers to push the platform even further, and enforces “rules of the road” that ensure that applications work well together.”  [4]

Meanwhile, in Canada, it also seems to be about far more than frontline cuts or “efficiency savings”:

“… fiscal restraint measures are driving the need to standardize, consolidate and re-engineer the way government operates and delivers services. By re-thinking how government delivers services, it will help lower the costs of services while improving the service experience.” [5]

In recent BBC coverage of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, the Director General of the CBI seemed to be a lone voice in raising the fundamental question of looking at how the public sector is designed, operated and maintained:

CBI director general John Cridland said the government would have to be “much more imaginative” about how it makes further spending cuts.

“Most of what we’ve done in this parliament, frankly, has been efficiency savings, cuts in head count, controls on pay,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“If you’re going to make the cuts we now need to make you’ve got to be far more lateral, you’ve got to re-engineer the whole model.” [6]

Our book examines these complex issues, looking at how the digital culture and practices of modern organisations can help improve the design and operation of government itself, and hence our public services.

The meaningful reform and renaissance of our public services requires us to move beyond the narrow “operational efficiencies” lens that currently dominates the political and media domains. The real task at hand is being side-tracked by the unacceptable — and unnecessary — axing instead of frontline services that impact some of the most vulnerable in our society. This “cut services” narrative misses the fundamental opportunity that the digital age provides: which is to rethink and radically improve government itself, stripping out the layers of duplication and redundancy, and to put an end to cutting the very services that the public sector is there to provide.

The opportunity that digital offers is about so much more than technology. It’s about enabling more resource to flow where taxpayers wanted it to go in the first place: the frontline.

[Update: this blog continues with a second post — (continued) more thoughts on government in the digital age]

[1] Gill Plimmer, Financial Times, August 23, 2011

[2] Kelly Fiveash, The Register, 9th July 2010. Retrieved from

[3] Kitsing, M. An Evaluation of E-Government in Estonia. Prepared for delivery at the Internet, Politics and Policy 2010: An Impact Assessment conference at Oxford University, UK, on September 16-17, 2010.

[4] Tim O’Reilly, Government as a Platform, 2010.

[5] International Council for IT in Government Administration (ICA). Canada Country Report for 2012. p2.

[6] BBC News, 4th December 2014. Retrieved from

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