Last night at the Institute for Government, I helped launch the “Manifesto for Better Public Services”, along with an accompanying and much more detailed “Better Public Services Green Paper”. You can download both from this website.
Chaired by Daniel Thornton, Programme Director at the Institute, I and one of my co-authors, Mark Thompson, set out the key proposals from the collaboratively developed Manifesto. Lesley Cowley OBE, Chair of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and Companies House, responded.
The Manifesto and associated Green Paper are the result of a series of workshops, discussions, first-hand experiences in small and large organisations, 1-2-1 meetings, conversations, working dinners, twitter interactions, blogs, conferences and unconferences, research, collaborative authoring and (more) discussions. It was a relief to get the results of this work out there into the open. It’s intended to be the start of an important discussion about the future configuration of our public services, not an end point. There is much more work to be done.
We make no claim that these are definitive “magic fix” guides for our public services (unlike some political manifestos), but to spark a better debate about their future – and how best to make improvements to the benefit of us all. They are a contribution to the debate from a particular perspective, not a “one size fits all” solution.
Ahead of the event, myself and Mark Thompson wrote “Better public services – a Beveridge for the 21st century” for Computer Weekly, setting out the background.
To paraphrase both that article and the papers released last night, the Manifesto sets out an approach to modernisation intended to help deliver better and more sustainable public services. But, like many, we remain sceptical that modern technology in itself can ever provide an easy solution. The poor and eye-wateringly expensive track record of technology-led “change programmes” in the public sector over many decades indicates otherwise.
Modern organisations make smart use of data and technology to reduce or even eliminate costly bureaucratic overheads and unnecessary processes, functions, transactions and organisational structures. They maximise their efficiency and cost-effectiveness whilst improving the quality of their services. They aim to remove everything that’s not absolutely essential for serving their customers, streaming it on demand like say, entertainment, electricity, or water – and constantly learning from every transaction and its outcome about how to continuously improve their services (albeit often in a privacy-invasive and exploitative way entirely unsuitable for governments).
We should learn how they have achieved these improvements in operating models and what lessons map over into the public sector. In particular, how we can potentially reduce and even eradicate the unnecessary competing organisations, management, procurement, governance, back-office administration, technology and so on that currently intrude between frontline workers and the public they serve, depleting essential time and resources better directed to the frontline.
What if our public services became as flexible, streamlined and easy-to-use for citizens as Uber – but with higher wages and in public ownership? As efficient as Amazon’s operations, and as intuitive as Google – but with 100% of the money invested into ethical and trusted public services, instead of pocketed by shareholders and a small elite of businesses? And all while securing and protecting citizens’ personal data, working with us in partnership, rather than monetising and exploiting our personal information like the worst of the private sector?
Many organisations (including in the private sector) continue to see “digital” or “digital transformation” as being about new shiny technical things to be bolted onto the existing way of doing things. Far too many senior managers I encounter are focused on implementing a silo “digital strategy,” as if it’s something that lives in its own realm, somehow distinct from the organisation’s core strategy, services and purpose.
No wonder so many “digital” initiatives fail, or simply trumpet a nicer looking website that papers over the cracks of existing services instead of delivering fundamental improvements and better outcomes. To improve the way they work and the quality and timeliness of the services they deliver, public sector organisations don’t need a separate “digital strategy” – they need a modern operating model. This is what our Manifesto and associated Green Paper set out, carrying on the theme of our earlier book “Digitizing Government: understanding and implementing new digital business models“.
As part of making this happen, we see the need to cultivate a new digital public infrastructure fit for the twenty-first century, including a public commons of digital utilities. By which we mean an open community of real and meaningful collaboration across the public sector and beyond – one that enables the sharing, distribution and communal ownership of information, services and technology. One that encourages innovation and smart re-use.
Such a digital commons would be beneficial for frontline public employees and citizens alike – and for entrepreneurs and others who want to contribute innovation and improvements. By opening up, and exposing and removing duplication, and by collaboratively identifying better ways of organising and achieving outcomes, increased resources would begin to flow into frontline services instead. Into the human things that matter most and that cannot – and should not – be automated, instead of into the currently siloed organisational, administrative and managerial overheads. It would re-empower the frontline, giving them access to the tools, information and technologies they need to develop and sustain a culture of continuous improvement.
In contrast, much “digital reform” has focused on minor improvements to existing organisational processes and websites, not on fundamental re-design from policy to outcome. Which is what happens when you artificially create “digital strategies” separate from the core strategy of an organisation. The focus ends up being on digitising current services and transactional interactions, not on rethinking how to achieve better outcomes in the internet age.
Current “digital” changes have done little more than insert a thin veneer of technology over existing paper processes, services and analogue organisations. Too much time and considerable expenditure over more than 20 years has already been lost on well- meaning but ultimately trivial tinkering and automation of the past. Technology used in this way has become an expensive displacement activity from the real work required to update and modernise our public sector.
We recognise that making these changes won’t be easy. Our public sector is big and complex: change needs to be carefully cultivated, nurtured and scaled – and can’t be imposed from above as some kind of “grand plan”. We suggest starting small, led by pioneer groups of public sector bodies keen to work in the open to become more efficient and transfer value to the frontline. We can see what works, what problems arise, what value it brings, and whether it helps.
Last night was the start of what we hope will be a re-energised focus and series of activities aimed at collaboratively modernising our public sector for the twenty-first century. In a sense, it aims to recapture that heady optimism of the early days of the Government Digital Service (GDS) when there was an exciting, almost revolutionary promise – that we could help overhaul and modernise the organisations, functions, processes and services of the way government itself is designed and operated. That it would be possible to redesign the operation, delivery and outcomes of government itself. That it would help cultivate the new public infrastructure and associated operating model required for twenty-first century public services.
Since that time however, the “vested interests” which were no doubt familiar to Beveridge seem to have deflected and neutralised that essential need once again.
Reinventing our public services for the internet age remains as big a challenge as when the UK created the welfare state, often in the face of equally fierce opposition from vested interests. To be successful, it will require a similar act of political vision and courage.