My new book Fracture is being published early in 2023. Here’s an early taste—the Foreword as it currently stands (the final edition may differ).
The Internet provides the means by which citizens can have a direct role in shaping policies and influencing the decisions that affect their lives. In the service of democracy, HM Government / UK Online, 2002.
What does the phrase “digital government” mean to you? Simpler, better, online public services? The latest political brainwave trumpeted on social media? Access to your COVID-19 vaccination records on a smartphone? A single cross-government website? Text message reminders to turn up for a hospital appointment?
Digital technologies have changed our daily experience of public services, much of it for the better. Government departments have migrated hundreds of forms from paper onto a screen. The UK’s HM Revenue and Customs, for example, can celebrate over twenty fun-packed years of online tax returns, from just 38,000 filed in 2001 to around 11 million in 2021.
Yet the original political ambition wasn’t simply about moving services online, but something far more fundamental: the redesign and renewal of democracy and our public institutions. As the UK House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee recently commented, however, “departments have failed to understand the difference between improving what currently exists and real digital transformation, meaning that they have missed opportunities to move to modern, efficient ways of working.”
This lack of understanding is a relatively recent phenomenon. During the 1990s, the UK government planned to use technology to “facilitate fundamental changes in the relationships between the citizen and the state, and between nation states, with implications for the democratic process and structures of government.” By 2002, it was consulting on ways “to promote, strengthen and enhance our democratic structures … [and] to give individuals more choice about how they can participate in the political process.”
They were exciting times, times when anything seemed possible, foreshadowing the ideas proposed by Tim O’Reilly, the publisher and technology pundit. He described in 2010 how internet technologies could create a more effective model of government, delivering Thomas Jefferson’s model of a democracy where everyone can be a participator in the government of affairs, “not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.”
A growing gulf
In response to a growing gulf between the UK’s idealistic ambitions and a much more mundane (and even sometimes toxic) delivery, in 2009 a broad tent of participants came together to create a crowd-sourced Ideal Government IT Strategy. Over the following months, various ideas were proposed, discussed, and debated on the Ideal Government wiki to improve the government’s approach to a range of technology-related issues, including data, design, governance, architecture, and procurement. But what also emerged was something of far greater importance: the use of technology to encourage citizen participation and improve transparency and trust.
|“Public sector technology should be explicitly integrated into the wider contemporary political, economic, social, and moral context. It’s not just about utility: it’s about service, dignity, control, and power.”|
Ideal Government IT Strategy, 2009
In early 2010, William Heath (a social entrepreneur and co-founder of Kable) and I presented the outcome of this collaborative exercise to the major UK political parties. We encountered thoughtful and encouraging engagement in Whitehall and Westminster, and repeatedly found ourselves pushing at an open door. So much so that during one of our discussions the Minister suddenly sat back and exclaimed “This is ground-breaking! Why have I never had a conversation like this before?”
The meeting ran long over time as we debated everything from the social and economic effects of technology to citizen-centric policy design and digital culture and practices. Our meetings made abundantly clear that the political ambition for radical reform and improvement remained as alive as it had been in the 1990s. As William wrote afterwards, we left the Minister’s office “with a bouncy spring in our step and faith in democracy in fine fettle.”
Strategy ≠ delivery
So, whatever happened to all these exciting and inspirational plans? Why haven’t we witnessed the delivery of the 1990s vision for a democratic renaissance, and dramatic improvements to the relevance and effectiveness of our governments and public services? Where are the trailblazing, cross-cutting policies, and digital era public institutions rebuilt around citizens with their active engagement and participation?
The “bouncy spring in our step and faith in democracy” William and I had back in 2010 proved premature. Digital government has drifted ever further away from its original political ambitions and potential. Ask most politicians to define “digital government” today and they’re unlikely to refer to Jefferson, citizen engagement and participation, cross-cutting policy design, and the renewal of democracy. It’s far more likely they’ll simply point at the hundreds of silo government services being delivered onto a single central website and say “D’oh! That’s digital!”
Perhaps that’s no surprise—given that digital so frequently ends up relegated to hard coding the silo policies, bureaucratic boundaries, funding, processes, and services of yesterday’s world, presenting them in all their fragmented glory onto a screen.
The priority given to pan-government websites and moving services online ignores a long-understood reality—that “purely applying technology to existing working practices, or at the customer interface, will not achieve the full benefits”, as the UK government’s own strategy presciently warned in 1996. Governments have digitised the design and presentation of existing services but done little to improve how they operate behind the screen. As a result, their organisational and operational design remains largely untouched, segmented into monolithic, hierarchical departments.
This command-and-control, vertical structure may have served governments well in its time, but it’s ill-suited to citizens’ needs and expectations in our rapidly evolving digital age. Today’s most effective organisations continuously refine how they achieve their objectives. They design themselves for change, using digital, data, and technology (DDaT) to transform their ability to anticipate, prepare, respond, and adapt.
This is the exact same transformation our governments need. And DDaT is essential to making it happen, “creating, inventing, designing, introducing new processes, new ways of thinking, new forms of leadership and management which enable new ideas to be embraced, new technologies to be exploited and integrated, transforming our current system into one which is permanently innovative, adaptable, responsive, and proactive.” DDaT can help governments operate outside the restrictions of their traditional policy silos, bringing teams together to focus on cross-cutting issues such as intergenerational poverty rather than being strait-jacketed within the boundaries of individual service-providing organisations.
Let’s get digital, digital
Governments have rarely used DDaT to maximum effect: to provide politicians with improved access to cross-cutting data, information, and insights; to increase communication and collaboration, allowing citizens, businesses, employees, politicians and policymakers to share ideas and work together on the development of better policies; and to enhance transparency and accountability.
These improvements will only materialise when governments adopt digital practices and cultures: citizen participation in the co-creation and co-design of policies and services; continuous feedback and data to inform and update policymaking; rapid experimentation to learn and adapt faster; improved organisation design; and cross-government systems for efficiency, agility, and scale.
It’s no coincidence that the most successful operational models—whether from military planning or software development—converge on an approach with similar characteristics, built around a cycle of evidence and needs, development, testing, learning, and perpetual improvement.
It’s consistently surprised me how little of this mindset applies to policymaking. As a former Permanent Secretary, Jonathan Slater, recently commented, “policymaking has always been distant from its customers” and “Whitehall’s remoteness from the public and frontline results in policymaking which is fundamentally inadequate to address the challenges we face.” Policymaking is missing out on one of the biggest benefits of the digital age: the opportunity to root itself in an iterative cycle of objective learning and refinement.
By working more closely with citizens, policymakers can break down the institutional boundaries of the past and enable the underlying causes of policy problems to be better understood and tackled. Adopting networked and collaborative ways of working will also create a more effective form of democratic governance, one that gets away from stale dogmatic debates about central versus local government: a form of governance in which devolution is achieved through an improved national operating model, one where participation, power, resources, and decisions operate at the most relevant, appropriate, and accountable level—national, regional, local, or hyper-local.
Time for a democratic reset
Digital, data, and technology increasingly influence and shape our politics and geopolitics, societies, economies, and democracy itself. And yet DDaT is rarely used as a strategic rather than an operational asset. Government “digital strategies” have become lost in the weeds, automating the silo policies, organisational structures, services, customs, and practices of a bygone age. This is why we urgently need to revisit and rediscover those earlier political ambitions to use digital to redesign and renew democracy and our public institutions.
To help bootstrap this process, Fracture discusses a wide selection of issues at the intersection of politics and technology. Many of these are topics I’ve debated and worked on for years with politicians, policymakers, civil servants, civil society, academics, industry insiders, and the media. My aim is to provide a broad sweep landscape review rather than an exhaustive analysis of every single topic. But I hope everyone—whether a technical specialist or casual reader—can find something useful or interesting, or at least provocative. I plan to update Fracture from time to time to reflect feedback from readers and political and digital developments.
Despite the many setbacks and shortcomings of the digital transformation of government over recent decades, I still have a surprisingly bouncy spring in my step and an unshakeable faith in democracy. I also hope that the political door remains open (or at least ajar) to the transformational use of digital. If it is, then perhaps Fracture can make a small, but important, contribution—and inspire politicians, officials, and governments to better understand and embrace digital into the heart of a much-needed and long-overdue democratic renewal.