Digital government isn’t about user needs – it’s more fundamental than that

Mark Thompson

Written by Mark Thompson, Joint Owner & Strategy Director at Methods Digital

The government digital movement needs to come out of startup phase and deliver on the real opportunities for public engagement.

The UK has a choice. Early digital initiatives – the Gov.UK website, the ‘discovery’ of agile, the mantra of ‘user needs’ – were great and much-needed developments in the startup phase of government digital.

That phase successfully disrupted a mutual complacency about technology at the top of public and private sectors alike. No one can take that achievement away.

Like all startups however, the “government digital” project can either stagnate or grow up. For all our sakes, let’s hope it chooses the latter – and quickly; there’s simply too much at stake. Consider the following scenarios:

  • “I’m a health worker, and I want to set up a ‘pop-up’ health outreach service, based in my local library, by stringing together some basic functions on my laptop – patient details and recent events, for example.”
  • “I’m a council-tax payer, and I want to assure myself that my council’s being run efficiently and providing residents with value for our money.”
  • “I’m a mental health charity worker considering a new initiative, but before I get going I’d like to see how I can piggy-back on some of the existing facilities – such as transport, events and venues – in the local area, otherwise I probably can’t afford it.”
  • “I’m a civil servant in a government department, and new legislation means I need to quickly get some new processes in place.”
  • “I’m a journalist, and I’m doing a piece on public procurement. I’d like to find out how some services are made up and if they’re being delivered as cheaply as possible.”
  • “I’m an entrepreneur, and think that I could deliver part of a public service much better – and more cost-effectively – than it’s being done currently.”
  • “I’m a citizen who’s been waiting ages for a passport renewal. If the delay’s unavoidable, I can live with it; however, I’d like to reassure myself this is the case.”
  • “I’m a Whitehall mandarin preparing a policy on integrating health and social care – so I need to start by understanding the existing service delivery landscape.”
  • “I’m an open data fanatic, and I suspect there may be a huge opportunity to mash-up data feeds from police, transport, local authorities and drivers’ satnavs to dramatically cut congestion – I’ll even do it for free.”
  • “I run a select committee looking at use of technology in the public sector, and need to cut through the different, conflicting perspectives to some objective measures.”
  • “I work for an outsourcing services provider, and suspect my customer may be underestimating what it takes to make this service a success – so I need to prove this is the case.”

Most of us could go on and think of further examples. So what unites these diverse scenarios, and what does this have to do with what “digital” is about? Surely it’s all about those “user needs”? There are two answers to this question.

Murky and opaque

The first answer is that none of these people can do any of these things at the moment. This is because the “black box” of public services is murky and opaque, and no one can look into it to see what is happening. Think about the consequences of that:

  • The health worker can’t set up the pop-up service, because the various details don’t talk to one another and are probably unavailable anyway.
  • The council-tax payer has no means of checking and holding their council to account.
  • The mental health worker has no visibility of the possibilities for sharing, so decides not to bother.
  • The civil servant can’t react quickly to new legislation, so initiates yet another cumbersome, costly transformation programme.
  • The entrepreneur can’t put together their case for innovation, so doesn’t innovate.
  • The citizen feels powerless in the face of what they feel to be bureaucratic unanswerability.
  • The Whitehall mandarin charges ahead with policy in the absence of hard evidence.
  • The open data fanatic gives up on their big idea because the data they need remains buried in various organisational silos.
  • The member of Parliament (MP) running the select committee is never able to get to the bottom of the issue of whether the public sector uses technology intelligently or not.
  • The outsourcing services provider builds in huge contingency to offset against the customer’s underestimation of risk, in an atmosphere of mutual distrust.

The second answer to the question of what these scenarios have in common is that they are all examples of bad social outcomes resulting from our inability to make our own decisions in dialogue with other people’s decisions and commitments.

Instead of public services founded on collective social intelligence, where myriad decisions are taken locally – based on what’s suitable on the ground but with the benefit of evolving mutual understanding and the diligence that accompanies public scrutiny – there is little collective wisdom in any of what we do.

The live DNA of public services

Consider instead a future scenario where all of these people simply access a which, in addition to being just a static “store front” for government – a collection of entry-points for public services and blogs by civil servants – allows you to view the live DNA of the services themselves.

Just imagine:

  • The health worker could quickly pull together some patient records, workflow and calendar functions and mount a pop-up service in the library in minutes.
  • The council-tax payer could compare the unit cost of the green-bin service with councils across the country – as could their council.
  • The mental health worker could immediately see those parts of other local services that they can make use of and accordingly decide to launch their new initiative.
  • The civil servant could avoid that costly transformation programme.
  • The journalist could compare the costs of what government organisations are paying – as well as with what industry is paying – for essentially the same thing.
  • The entrepreneur could pinpoint the commercial opportunity, and make the innovative proposal to his local authority.
  • The citizen would be consoled by a sense of inclusion in, and understanding of, a bureaucratic process that would now feel slightly less unanswerable.
  • The Whitehall mandarin could identify those parts of health and social care that involve similar activities and data, and formulate a policy for their convergence.
  • The open data fanatic might develop the mash-up, with incalculable benefits for motorists’ time, the economy and the environment.
  • The MP, armed with forensic, drill-down data on each component of each technology service, could move beyond the conflicting assurances of permanent secretaries and their major suppliers, and hold both to account.
  • Both outsourcer and customer, in the knowledge of the going market rate for a standard service, might arrive more quickly at uncomplicated agreement.

Exposing value chains

It’s not hard to conjecture that exposing the value chains of government services to the public, so that we can all see and compare and improve on them on a daily basis – akin to tinkering with a giant Meccano set made of lots of standard components – would amount to nothing less than a democratic revolution.

An early example of an exposed value chain is DVLA’s road tax renewal service, where we watch government join up our registration, insurance and MOT databases, and take our money, in real-time.

Instead of stale, self-legitimising talk by public administrators about how they are building stuff to “meet user needs”, the function of public administrators becomes increasingly about providing us with the building blocks to, for example, assemble, innovate, combine, question and contract for our public services.

Gov.UK could be a teeming, transparent hub for social and economic exchange where the basic building blocks underlying public services would be there for all to consume, challenge and drive hard bargains against – digital democracy in reality, rather than in rhetoric. It would belong to the people, rather than the bureaucracy.

Is it a fairy tale or achievable reality? The technology exists that could enable us to start to move convincingly in this direction – digital devices at the front end, common data at the back end and “connecting tissue” of standardised, modular, democratically accessible building blocks of business logic in the middle.

But we need the right leadership to get there. For example, the medium – the “nutrient jelly” – for all this will increasingly be a common platform as a service (PaaS).

So where’s the PaaS strategy for government? Who is ensuring that if one public body or region invests in apps that work on, for example, Microsoft’s Azure platform, that these will also be re-useable by another public body/region that has invested in, or Amazon Web Services?

Situational awareness

Here’s another example: I spent the summer researching the latest academic literature on platform-ecosystem models, and can report there is widespread international agreement on the pivotal importance for digital service models of establishing shared “situational awareness”.

That means a recognition of the explosive, positive implications of providing everyone with visibility of what everyone else is doing – against the unfolding backdrop of the market.

These are significant strategic issues requiring big decisions, but they are met with chronic indecision redolent of the decision over a new runway at Heathrow.

Where is the commitment even to the baby steps of building such a consensus across our public services?

Where is the digital equivalent to the civil service’s Major Projects Leadership Academy, driving C-suite literacy and consensus on the impact of the internet on government, and yielding a vigorous digital alumni network committed to sharing and joint situational awareness?

Look at the £35bn, year-on-year implications of a digitised, democratic public business model delivering more face-to-face public servants for the public, public servants and civil servants, traditional suppliers, politicians and even Brexit.

It stacks up for everyone involved except the mediators, and it will happen eventually anyway because it’s happening to service models worldwide.

This vision contrasts strongly with the spectacle of civil servants building technology in Whitehall in anticipation of user needs.

Such command-economy stuff is not only anti-digital, but profoundly anti-democratic. It confuses the technology of open source with the digital dynamics of open standards, and mistakes agile anticipation of user needs by public employees, for real, democratic empowerment of citizens.

The very real issue of whether we can maintain our public service levels by continuing to be organised as we are only gets worse. When will we take the bull by the horns?

This article first appeared on Computer Weekly’s blog here.

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