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

Posted in digital, future Britain, IT, IT strategy, public services, technology, technology policy, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Understanding and implementing new digital business models

Digitizing Government SmallOur new book about understanding and implementing new digital business models, Digitizing Government, is published 1st December in the UK and 26th December in the USA.

I’ve written it with Alan Brown and Mark Thompson, bringing together a range of experiences from our work with large organisations trying to adapt to the digital age, together with some of our own academic research. All three of us are a blend of active practitioners as well as being academics — Alan as Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Surrey’s Business School, Mark as Senior Lecturer in Information Systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, and myself as Senior Research Fellow at Bath Spa University.

Although we’ve focused on governments — since they face some particularly complex challenges in transforming into truly digital organisations — investment in digital technologies and adaptation to digital culture has become essential for success and sustainability across a whole variety of organisations.

We’ve aimed to make our book practical rather than academic in nature, sharing experiences, insights and advice for understanding and implementing digital transformation to increase business value and improve client engagement. It’s in three broad sections — a “why”, “what”, and “how” that articulate and explore the major elements of digital transformation, and offer clear steps for execution of digital strategies.

We’ve included case studies from both private and public sectors, together with a detailed chronology of current digital change efforts here in the UK government. We relate these to government efforts in the USA and elsewhere in the world.

Ultimately we hope it provides a practical and unique set of insights into organisations in the digital economy. We don’t claim to have all the answers — merely to help nudge things in a better direction and to open up a more open and constructive debate about the future of our public services.

You can order it on Amazon UK and Amazon US, amongst other places — or better, why not order through your local bookshop and show them a bit of support? If you do read it, please let me know what you think: the move to digital is very much work in progress. We all need to share and learn more effectively if we’re going to help organisations successfully adapt.

Posted in digital, future Britain, IT, IT strategy, open government, public services, technology, technology policy | 1 Comment

be careful what you wish for … (part 94)


Hold on — haven’t we been here before? There’s something very familiar about the recent unveiling of new powers for the state to snoop on the UK population through a proposed new Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill.

I doubt that anyone reasonable argues with the superficial intent — to detect criminals (specifically terrorists) and bring them to justice. The much more complex issue is the question of where lines are drawn: what is the most appropriate way of achieving that outcome? How much should the state intrude into everyone’s daily lives?

We need to find a solution that is proportional, sustainable and reasonable in our democratic state. The worst possible outcome would be that we blindly erode the very values we once used to uphold — not because someone bombed us day after day into doing so, but because we voluntarily surrendered our own freedoms, and hence our legitimacy, out of a misplaced sense of fear.

Part of the problem is that often these issues only seem to be considered through one lens: that of counter-terrorism. When in opposition, political parties tend to listen to a wide variety of expert opinion, and at least offer us the hope of developing reasonably balanced policies. Once in power however, governments seem to turn to single sources of truth, all of them peering through the same lens. Over time, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish a new government’s policy on these issues from the ones that preceded it, as their once-intended policy becomes progressively degraded.

These latest counter-terrorism proposals seem intended to work by eradicating any remaining vestiges of anonymity and privacy in our daily lives. This extinction of personal anonymity has profound implications — not just for journalists whose sources can no longer be protected, not just for MPs trying to meet in confidence with their constituents, or for NHS whistleblowers, but also for the police themselves. And indeed for the rest of us, just trying to muddle along and get on with our lives.

I do wonder which undercover criminal sources, or “double-agent” jihadists, are going to run the risk of communicating with or meeting with the police or intelligence agencies, when they know it’s no longer either secret or safe to do so? With that telltale, pointing-finger trail of mobile phone interactions and email exchanges left in their wake, who would risk putting their lives on their line? The risks for such essential insider informants are being multiplied by the very measures presumably intended to help.

I’m surprised we haven’t heard more from the likes of important players such as Crimestoppers — given that their assurances of anonymity for those wanting to help presumably plays a key role in encouraging people with information to come forward. Their site says they received over 100,000 pieces of useful information about crime from the public last year, and over 6,000 criminals were arrested and charged. Yet who has evaluated the impact that the removal of anonymity will have on such essential sources of information?

Without a proper debate, and a rigorous assessment of the likely real-world impacts of a further erosion of our online and electronic device privacy, who knows whether these latest familiar proposals changes will actually assist — or degrade — counter-terrorism intelligence work?

Part of the debate that we need includes news programmes and journalists asking these sort of questions: “What impact will the end of anonymity have on essential intelligence gathering sources like Crimestoppers?”, “How will the the police be able to meet with informers if all the details of who met with whom and when are automatically being gathered electronically?” and even (admittedly more self-serving) “How will journalists protect their sources?”. But ultimately these issues and their very real impacts are not going to go away merely because a properly informed debate doesn’t take place.

We need a much better public discussion about where these lines are drawn: what information is gathered, from whom, in what detail, what it is stored and how it is protected and how accessed. No computer system is 100% secure. There’s no such thing. Information will leak from the systems holding all these sensitive information. The odd rogue insider will occasionally — and inevitably — abuse their position: sources will be compromised, confidence undermined, sources of intelligence lost. Possibly far, far worse.

If these proposals do go ahead, the controls and democratically-accountable oversight regimes put into place must be robust and demonstrably independent to counterbalance them. Those who abuse the system — and they will — must be brought promptly and publicly to trial, and those who are inadvertently exposed — police sources, journalist sources, MPs’ constituents, NHS and financial services whistleblowers — rigorously protected. Parliament needs the capability, commitment and power to ensure our (unwritten) constitution is not undermined by the drip, drip, drip of incremental responses to the fear of terrorist activities.

To answer my own opening question — yes, we have been here before. And I’m sure we’ll be here again. We’ve seen this well-meaning, but one-sided perspective in the past: that’s partly what my semi-dramatised 2006 blog when guilty men go free was all about. When proposals such as this are put in front of us, they need to be robustly assessed by a credible public challenge rooted in the wider reality of the way our country operates and our people live their lives — and not simplistically considered through a counter-terrorism lens, darkly.

Posted in future Britain, privacy, security, technology, technology policy, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Happy 20th anniversary online government

It’s 20 years ago this month that the UK government first launched a website intended to provide a simplified, single point of access to information from across the public sector. I thought I’d add a little more detail — or at least, a few historic screenshots — to support my recent CIO column marking the anniversary.

The Government Information Service (GIS), hosted at, launched in November 1994. It was intended that over 400 public sector organisations, including government departments, local authorities and police forces, would provide their information on the site, which received around 200,000 hits a day shortly after launch.


In July 1996, this summarised the state of play:

23 July 1996

By mid 1997 it was approaching 2m requests a week.


In 1999, the “Portal Feasibility Study” (PDF) set out plans for a more comprehensive approach to delivering all government services online in one place. The portal element of this architecture was originally nicknamed “”: below are some mockups from 2000 of how it was envisaged it might look during early envisaging. 1 2000 2 2000By the time of its launch, it had become “UKonline”. UKonline initially appeared as a beta site in November 2000, followed by a formal launch in February 2001.

UK Online

UKonline aimed to provide more integrated services, built around citizens’ “life episodes” (events that had meaning to them), rather than just projecting the departmentally-based  silo services already in existence.

UK Online life episodes

The 1st March 2004 saw another rebrand and relaunch, this time as Directgov.


In May 2011, Directgov (and its sister site, BusinessLink — dedicated to meeting the needs of UK business users) began to be superseded by GOV.UK, initially as an alpha.


In October 2012, the site replaced Directgov and went fully operational as GOV.UK, celebrating its second birthday just last month.

UK.GOV.October 2014

I’ve collated some stats on the usage of the online site(s) in various guises over the past 20 years below — not helped by early stats relating to “hits” or “visits” and more recent measures relating to “unique visitors/users”. So don’t take this as the definitive or final comment on the growth of online government information and services but a partial snapshot at a moment in time … (and if any of you have additional interim dates and usage stats not shown, let me know and I’ll revise/improve the list).

  • 1994 — 200,000 hits a day
  • 1997 — 285,000 hits a day
  • 2004 — 172,257 unique visitors a day
  • 2012 — 1m unique visitors a day
  • 2014 — 1.4m unique visitors a day

Happy 20th anniversary!

[A more detailed narrative of the last 20 years of online government is provided in an earlier blog here]

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random access memories

I’m often asked how I got into computing in a generation when neither IT not computer science were on the school curriculum. So, I’ll try to fill in a few random gaps from some cobwebby parts of my memory …

It all started as a hobby. One of my earliest memories of using a computer was thanks to the North Kent Amateur Computer club and the host of hobbyists and enthusiasts that used to attend. It was the age of the kit computer, when the likes of the UK101 ruled supreme.


I think it was Thursday evenings after school when I’d turn up at some local venue — usually a spare school hall — to find a room full of enthusiastic, often bearded participants, all hunched over circuit boards and small TV sets acting as monitors.

From time to time one of them would pick up a soldering iron and make an adjustment to something, or unplug and restart the system or wallop a TV set to stop the picture jumping. These are the folks I’ve always thought of as “digital natives” — people who understand how to design and use digital technology — but that phrase seems to be (ab)used now merely to mean people who have grown up using digital devices as consumers.

I remember testing out some of the simple 3D green mazes and early scrolling games that tried to make it feel like I was speeding across a largely imagined landscape and into the distance. The members of the club were always unfailingly generous in letting me try out their latest hardware builds and hand-cranked software instead of merely dismissing me as another irritating spotty teenager from the local comprehensive avoiding homework with a much more interesting displacement activity.

Towards the  end of my sixth form days, the first computer had turned up at the school — a Commodore PET.


Ever since, I’ve regarded this as what a “real” computer should be like — with a built-in monitor and keyboard, and its own sophisticated storage system (aka a cassette tape deck). We were able to book the PET after school to use for something like an hour at a time — just about enough time to load something from the tape, suss out how it worked and then hand it over to the next person. We seemed to spend most of our time standing around it and working out how to win at the text-based version of the Star Trek game.

I remember at home we also ended up owning one of the earliest video game consoles — a Magnavox Odyssey. My mum bought it for us secondhand (I’m not quite sure how we managed to persuade her to do that, particularly given how tight money was). It seemed great fun for its time, complete with a light rifle and a set of screen overlays that would be held in place on the TV screen courtesy of the static charge.


These imaginative static overlays turned our black and white TV into “colour” for the first time, with most of the games based on a variation of Pong. To change game, you removed one of the cards that came with the console, and inserted another one in its place. I remember using the rifle to take pot shots at the ball of light as it moved around the “haunted house” overlay, appearing momentarily at some of the “windows” cut into the static film. State of the art or what?

Like most of my early machines, sadly I’ve no idea what happened to the Odyssey over the years — lost in one of those many post-university moves between various rental properties in and around rundown parts of London.

My own first purchase was a Sinclair ZX-80, then the ZX-81, then the ZX-Spectrum.

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 07.32.04

Like many of my generation, I owe a lot to the pioneering spirit of Sir Clive Sinclair: thanks mate.


At university, the Spectrum ended up in the communal room, used for gaming alongside our “artistic” pyramid built from dozens of empty beer cans assembled on the mantelpiece. The dusty two-bar electric fire that made this the only warm room in the house was at the end of slightly melted extension cable which ran into the adjacent bedroom — the only room in the Stoke Newington house we all shared that had no electricity slot meter in it. (From what I remember, most of the house was wired via a spaghetti ball of cables back into that room and its free electricity supply …).

Initially, programming these early computers either consisted of copying in program listings from hobbyist magazines or writing your own code. With the magazine listings there always seemed to be errors in the code, meaning it was necessary to buy the next month’s edition as well for the errata — unless I managed to work out for myself what lines had been missed or garbled in the meantime. Later came the use of cassette decks, a rather erratic and unpredictable way of loading programs — often only failing after 15 or 20 minutes or more when the Play button on the cassette player would pop up and you’d realise the program had failed to load.

Later I moved onto a Commodore 64, a BBC Model B and then onto a “proper” computer — the Apricot F10. My programming efforts, which had started with BASIC, experimented with everything from assembly language (on both Z80 and 6502 processors) to Fortran, Prolog and Pascal.


At work when I started, it was an age when the IBM PC had yet to dominate — it was not unusual to find an office where almost everyone was working at a different incompatible computer. On one desk would be an Apple II, at another a Commodore and at another an Apricot. Apricot were doing well in the UK at the time, particularly in the public sector — they ran faster and more effectively at a lower price than their American cousins. Not that it helped them much in fighting off the competition …

… to be continued (possibly) at some future point …

[With thanks to, and for the assortment of images used in this blog]

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more on the 1999 change of address demonstrator ….

I mentioned in a previous post the work done in the late 1990s to put online a change of address service.

This service enabled citizens to inform separate government departments, via the internet and in a single transaction, of a change of address.  The two departments who took part in this work were Inland Revenue (now part of HMRC) and the Department of Social Security (now DWP). The project never really moved beyond its live demonstration phase with a limited subset of citizens.

I’ve recently managed to source some additional screen grabs from that era, as below.

Missing from these is the stage where users were authenticated by a third party digital certificate — in this case Royal Mail’s ViaCode or Barclay Bank’s Endorse (NatWest Bank had also been involved in some earlier work). It was this signing that helped confirm the user’s identity (a similar federated model as that currently being developed by the Cabinet Office’s Identity Assurance Programme).

The smartcard authentication method required a user to have a valid and pre-initialised smartcard. with a recognised digital certificate present. The smartcard was inserted into the citizen’s smartcard reader before accessing the secure web site.  This enabled (transparently to the user) the web browser on the PC to establish a secure session with the site using a trusted certificate. When this secure session was established, the citizen was able to access the protected web site. Then, once the user had completed the web pages, the data were signed using the digital certificate.

The initial welcome screen.


Next was the screen for entering personal details.


Then the old and new address pages, with the addresses automatically validated with the Post Office’s Personal Address File (PAF).

coa6 coa7

Followed by letting users decide which departments they wanted to notify of their change of address.


And finally, there was the summary and declaration screen.


After which the user would be presented with a confirmation page and a reference number to quote in the event of any follow-on enquiries.


The summary architecture for this service is shown below.

Change of Address 1999

XML was used as part of the government’s adoption of open standards for data and interfaces via the GovTalk initiative.



Stefan Czerniawksi points out the above largely relates to the early stage demonstrator — and that the later live pilot expanded to include more departments and was made available through third party sites. See also his related blog here.

Posted in identity, IT, IT strategy, open government, privacy, public services, security, technology, technology policy | 1 Comment

a tale of two countries: the digital disruption of government

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 11.39.40

My Australian colleague, Marie Johnson, and I have drafted a paper for this month’s Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management (CAPAM) conference being held in Putrajaya, Malaysia. It looks at government endeavours in the UK and Australia over the last 20 or so years to use technology to improve our public services.

You can download a copy of the paper (PDF) here — A Tale of Two Countries – Fishenden and Johnson.

Due to a diary conflict, I won’t be attending to co-present the paper, but Marie will be there to narrate and debate our ‘tale of two countries’.

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 11.35.55

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