The political opportunity – and threat – of better public services

Hard to believe I know, but we’re approaching ten years ago – 4th June 2009 to be precise – when Tim O’Reilly set out his ideas on how to improve and modernise public services (referred to as both “Gov 2.0” and “government as a platform”), discussed in more detail in his subsequent 2010 article. These ideas embraced:

  • citizen contribution and collaboration
  • use of social media
  • transparency
  • lightweight web development practices
  • cloud computing

He also provided seven principles, supported by practical examples drawn from across private and public sectors:

  1. Embrace open standards: they encourage innovation and grow the market
  2. Build a simple system – let it evolve
  3. Design for participation
  4. Learn from your users, especially ones who do what you don’t expect
  5. Lower the barriers to experimentation
  6. Build a culture of measurement
    • if it works, do more of it
    • if it doesn’t, stop doing it
    • build systems that respond automatically to user stimuli
  7. Celebrate your developers

Some of the language – “market” rather than say “service” – was not best-suited to the essential public service obligations of government. But the underlying ideas merited further exploration, based as they were on the radical improvements in service quality, timeliness and relevance that technology was helping deliver in many organisations. Why should we also not expect to see similar improvements in government too: to the benefit not only of policymakers able to achieve better outcomes, but also to those who deliver and those who receive public services?

Beyond websites – to interfaces and data

O’Reilly highlighted the importance of moving on from websites, which had been the focus of early efforts to put government services and information online:

Tim O’Reilly, Government as a Platform, 2009

This reflected the UK’s own learnings since putting a central website online in 1994, providing the first, if rudimentary, single point of entry to government services and information. The UK subsequently moved beyond websites to nurture a variety of open interfaces and platforms providing access to data, systems and processes from late 2000 onwards, placing it …

… in the vanguard of developing common IT architectures, and ahead of most of the benchmark group in developing the IT core to enable secure transactions with citizens.

The World’s Most Effective Policies For The e-Economy. International e-Economy Benchmarking. Booz, Allen, Hamilton, 2002.

Although the provision of open interfaces for systems, processes and data had started in the UK government in the early 2000s, with one or two notable exceptions – such as the work of HMRC in areas such as PAYE and RTI, and the NHS via its developer portal – it seems to have later been relatively marginalised by a return to focusing on the “new paper”: websites with their online forms and screeds of text. 

Given that our most important interactions with public services are usually face-to-face, and don’t begin or end on a web page, the use of technology to streamline processes and to provide better, more secure and timely use of data is likely to provide a far more meaningful focus. One that helps to improve services for everyone, not solely those citizens willing or able to use technology directly themselves.

Building platforms versus government as a platform

Building “platforms for government” – shared technology products that can be used to meet common needs, such as a single website, or a payment, identity, or transaction handling system – is something the UK has been pursuing since 1998. But building “platforms for government”, while potentially useful, is not the same as “government as a platform”, as various people have pointed out. And O’Reilly also provided a simple test to check whether something is really a platform or not in his 2009 slides:

Tim O’Reilly, Government as a Platform, 2009

The repeated efforts by central government teams to develop common technology products rather than improving the design of government and how it can achieve better outcomes is understandable – mainly because it’s a damn sight easier. But this tendency to build products can also conflict with O’Reilly’s counsel not to “reinvent the wheel” and to re-use existing platforms wherever possible – something aligned with the original GDS platform guidance from 2013 (later deleted):

A move to platforms does not mean that government has to develop everything in-house: many of government’s needs can be met by existing cost-efficient utility services. However, government can help to establish best practice in areas such as personal data privacy.

Wherever appropriate, the government should use existing external platforms, such as payments services (ranging from third party merchant acquirer services to the UK’s national payments infrastructure). Deciding to develop platforms in-house will happen only where that is the best way to meet users’ needs in the most flexible and cost-effective way.

Successfully building new platforms and seeing them taken up and exploited by others is rarely as easy as it sounds. A product team can focus on a set of user needs, framed often within the context of one particular bit of one particular government department under one particular piece of legislation. But it’s much more difficult to then try and evangelise these products as common infrastructure and to persuade others to adopt them too – one of numerous lessons already learned by 2003, in the early years of online government services and systems interfaces.

Democraticising and modernising public services

O’Reilly’s “government as a platform” vision offers a potentially significant departure from existing service and organisational models of government: a step away from the top-down, centralised “command and control” approach to managing services. Instead, it envisages government exploiting the co-operative use of platforms to deliver better, more relevant policy outcomes. It’s an ambitious agenda in which the use of collaborative open platforms could enable the inherited administrative silos of government to gradually be enhanced or even replaced with better, user-focused services and more relevant organisational structures and processes.

It provides one possible means of resolving the dilemma that Haldane and his committee considered in 1918:

From the Report of the Machinery of Government Committee, HMSO, 1918.

Roll forward 80 years from Haldane and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology considered a similar issue, recognising that technology now provided new ways of organising things (something simply not possible at the time of Haldane):

Alternative ideas on the structure of government. From the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) report “Electronic Government: Information Technologies and the Citizen” of 1998.

“Government as a platform” provides one option for how a POST-like re-structuring could happen. It’s also important for another reason. Finding good social, economic and political solutions to complex problems is challenging (and deeply frustrating) within the current administrative and service silos. The interplay between say housing, education, the environment, law and order, health, transport and work is never going to be easily improved in terms of either a citizen’s experience or a government’s desired policy outcomes so long as the inflexible constraints imposed by the current operational structures, processes and systems remain as they are.

The idea of government as a platform has sometimes been dismissed, becoming confused with the profiteering and highly dubious behaviours of new technology platform players – the Ubers, Facebooks, Googles, YouTubes, Twitters, etc. of this world. But such a dismissal fails to distinguish between the sometimes repellant and privacy-leeching behaviours and cultures of these corporates, and the significance of the new organisational models and services that open platforms can enable. It’s a viewpoint that confuses baby and bathwater. It makes about as much sense as governments ignoring, say, the social and economic importance of railways simply because initially they were run by dodgy railroad tycoons (the technology tyrants of their own day).

So where’s the political vision and ambition?

I’ve long hoped (naively no doubt) that a political party would spend its years wisely in opposition (or even in government, although that’s a harder challenge), setting aside dogma and tired tribal prejudices to instead draw upon the existing extensive evidence base. Researching in depth how and where technology could play a genuinely significant role in improving the quality of life for citizens and public employees alike – not focusing on websites but applying the best lessons learned from modern organisational structures and processes, particularly their ability to respond to realtime feedback to make continuous service improvements. Using their time to gather essential feedback from the frontline, to map, test, learn, iterate and rethink the interplay of public policy, technology and society.

Tim O’Reilly, Government as a Platform, 2009

Either I’m missing it (quite possible) or there’s not currently any large scale public engagement, detailed discovery, evidence-gathering, mapping, discussion or planning about the wholesale, radical democratisation and re-engineering of our public services by any of the mainstream political parties (or indeed any of the less mainstream ones).

There’s plenty of interesting ideas from the RSA, the Institute for Government, and others, but no comprehensive vision or strategy that I’ve seen from any political party or movement – least of all one based on effective, open engagement with those at the sharp end of our public services.

We should also be wary that talk of “democratisation” via open platforms does not simply become another proxy for vocal, but unrepresentative, self-selecting groups to decide “what’s best” to justify and impose their own “solutions” – which would only put us back largely where we are with the current top-down model. And we must be equally wary too of so-called design thinking that merely perpetuates similar problems.

It’s the voices of those who are currently least heard, those who depend upon or deliver services and who often know exactly where they’re broken and the pain that causes, that need to be amplified, listened to and acted upon.

There have been welcome glimmers of light, and occasionally the ambition and drive in UK politics from various politicians (of all colours) and officials over the past few decades. But all too often delivery remains stuck within the paper/website form and transactional service mindset, constrained by the divisions of the existing structures of Whitehall and the UK’s centralised power structures. And so technology ends up as a slightly awkward apprentice, relegated to repeatedly sanding-down and revarnishing the current model.

Improved approaches to the design of our public services – with their focus on both better policy outcomes and better meeting the needs of citizens – present a potential threat to the dogmatic tendencies of much existing political thought. Yet this threat can, and should, be turned to political advantage by a party with the confidence to do so. It requires an honest focus on getting public services right for those who need them and deliver them – however poorly the best way of doing that might align with existing political prejudices, ideologies and historic baggage.

What next?

The longer we tinker around with technical widgets or simply shuffle deck chairs between existing service silos, the more likely that citizen and public service worker frustration, anger and despair will continue to grow. After all, many promises have been made over many decades about better public services enabled by technology.

Yet let’s not overlook the many good pockets of work that are happening, courtesy of some very committed and compassionate people inside and outside of the public sector. People who are working hard to drive meaningful improvements in our public services, doing often outstanding work that’s well ahead of the commercial sector. Working hard to deliver better outcomes, despite the relentless constraints and frustrations of the organisational, political, attitudinal, legislative, technical, financial and service silos around them. Without them, many of our current public services would probably have collapsed long ago.

What I’m not currently seeing, however, is anything like the level of honesty, detailed consultation, discussion, learning, transparency and preparation that’s required at the national political level if we’re serious about exploiting the integral role of technology in public service improvement. Yet this work – this leadership – is essential if we’re ever going to champion and lift up these people, projects and exemplary work at the scale and speed necessary to deliver the progressive, national and wholesale timely improvement of our public services.

Despite all this, and the costly, frustrating decades it’s taken to get this far, I remain an optimist at the beginning of 2019. Much of the practical work and lessons learned – and many of the building blocks – are in place, but currently largely ignored, misunderstood or poorly orchestrated. I don’t mean just the role of technology with ideas such as “government as a platform” – after all, technology in isolation never solves anything – but other contributory factors too such as the Social Value Act, and the practical, proven approaches that have already worked in small pockets in the UK and elsewhere

I’m well aware that “government as a platform” alone isn’t the answer, any more than repeated efforts to build government platforms have been. But it does I believe have a contributory role to play in improving and modernising our outdated and often inefficient organisational structures and processes, helping us in turn to improve our public services. The real-time, continuous service feedback from successful implementation would also help inform government’s evidence base and hence (ideally) its policymaking, improving government’s capability to effectively oversee the prioritisation and delivery of our public services.

I do still believe that at some point we will finally see the democratising power of technology ripple through our public services on a far more significant scale than at present, helping re-engineer them more effectively for the twenty-first century for policymakers, citizens, and public employees alike. It’s just disappointing at the start of yet another year to once again reflect on how long it’s taking – and the numerous opportunities lost along the way.

This blog post contains working extracts from my new book exploring the intersection of politics, technology and society. The book is in its very early stages – final delivery is likely to differ 🙂

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