The wellsprings of UK digital reform part 2 – separating porcine lip enhancement from transformation


This is the second episode of a mini-series of blogs looking at the origins of the UK government’s digital reform programme since 2010.

Part 1 briefly set out the backstory – the focus on understanding the needs of service users (including redesigning services around “life episodes“) and the associated cross-government enabling platforms in place as early as 2003.

It’s important to understand these earlier approaches, including what worked and what didn’t. After all government, a bit like any large organisation, has the memory of a goldfish. It often ends up doing the same thing time and again, each time claiming it’s breaking new ground whilst often retreading the well-worn footprints of those who went before. No wonder politicians and public alike get cynical about the role of technology in improving public services.

The pioneering UK work of the late 1990s and early 2000s created a good base to build on. It developed a promising cross-government policy delivery infrastructure based on open standards, open interfaces and shared components. Important (and often painful) lessons were learned during this journey to de-silo government and rebuild services around outcomes rather than institutions and existing transactions.

The wellsprings

In this second blog, I’m setting out a few ideas about how we can best evaluate the 3 main wellsprings that underpinned digital reform from 2010 onwards. In particular, how we can objectively assess how much impact they’ve had on the UK’s efforts to make our public services and public sector more effective – for both those who use and those who deliver our public services.

This should put us in a good place for the following parts of the story, in which I’ll explore the 3 main wellsprings in more detail:

  • Better for Less (2009) – which helped develop the policies of open data, innovate / leverage / commoditise, disaggregation, spend controls, open standards, SME-focus, service-oriented / micro-services architecture, cloud first / buy before build, etc.
  • Directgov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution (2010) – which helped accelerate the website convergence onto GOV.UK already underway as part of Directgov, and which set out ambitious plans to open up government through the more widespread adoption of APIs (application programming interfaces – interfaces to provide access to government systems)
  • The House of Commons Public Account Select Committee’s (PASC) report into Government IT (2011) – which supported the move towards opening up the market, re-skilling the civil service and the increased use of SMEs

All 3 of these have played an important role in helping re-energise attempts to modernise and improve public services.

Separating “transformation” from lipstick on pigs

The phrase “digital transformation” has been bandied about so much it’s become increasingly meaningless and tarnished, part of a modern day group-think Grammelot as likely to provoke tired disdain and hollow, cynical laughter as excitement. This is partly because it’s often become just another lazy way of repackaging the simplistic and decades-old dogma that technology will help drive

… service organisations, including those in the public sector, towards profound transformations in the design of their production processes and structures.” [1].

Any assessment of whether beneficial transformation has taken place only makes sense if we can set aside the Kool-Aid of “digital” hype and define objectively what, if any, progress has been made behind the smokescreen of self-promotional tweeting. I intend to try using the definitions below to help evaluate where we are on the spectrum of change: from genuinely improving public service outcomes – true transformation of the kind much promised but unfortunately seldom delivered – to the more mainstream, and more usual, areas of automation, optimisation or re-engineering.

transformation table.png
Distinguishing “transformation” from other technology-enabled initiatives [2]
Transformation is a world away from simply polishing the way things are currently done (the “lipstick on pigs” approach – the tired web- and form-based service design ethos of the past few decades, stuck Groundhog Day-like inside the broken silos and reference frames of existing organisational services). Improving our public services relies on the ability to step back and rethink and redesign current public policy by focusing relentlessly and selflessly on improved outcomes, with a profoundly beneficial and positive impact on people and their experience of delivering or receiving public services.

Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 08.21.06.png
The ever popular analogy of “Lipstick on a pig” – an image I shamelessly recycled from my earlier slides in my 2008 talk “Reinventing government for the internet age

I’m hoping these definitions will help us better assess the contribution the 3 wellsprings have made, to identify which of their ideas have had most profound and meaningful impact since 2010, and to consider how best to improve public services given where we are now.

In my next blog in this mini-series I’ll begin to work my way through each of the 3 wellsprings in turn – the ideas they injected into public service reform and how well understood and implemented they have been. In the final blog that follows these next pieces, I’ll review the impacts and outcomes they’ve had – where I think they’ve helped, and where they haven’t.

Next up …

Right, that’s enough scene-setting and backstory – next up, time to explore the first of our 3 wellsprings: “Better for Less”. Coming this way as soon as I find the time between the day job(s) and other articles and blogs.

[1] “Introduction: Exploiting IT” in “Public Administration – Towards the Information Polity?” Bellamy, C., and Taylor, J.A., Public AdministrationVol. 72 March 1994. pp.1-13.

[2] I adapted this a while back from an original breakdown set out in “Reinventing Government in the Information Age”. Heeks, R (editor). Routledge, 1999. These updated definitions also appeared in Computer Weekly in Escaping waterfall government and the myth of ‘digital transformation’ in my article co-authored with Cassian Young

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