Digital Economy Dispatch #121 -- The Fractured Nature of Digital Government
5th March 2023
We’re facing a crisis in public service delivery. Despite the dedication and hard work of many people, acceleration in the pace, pressures, and priorities for delivering public services has pushed government agencies to the limit. And sometimes beyond. Facing rising demand, tightening budgets, and a volatile environment, both local and central services have struggled to adapt to changes in demand, increased focus on accountability, overcoming staffing shortages, and much more.
The scope of the challenge can be seen in Deloitte’s most recent “State of the State” report for the UK. Based on a large public survey of over 5,000 people and in-depth interviews with over 50 public sector leaders, the overwhelming sentiment was that the current system is at breaking point and requires significant reform. Many felt that the scale of the challenge for government and public services appears overwhelming. With unsustainable levels of funding and longstanding pressures on their workforces, the report states that public sector leaders urged that bold reform is needed rather than incremental adjustments.
Where can we turn for the disruptive changes required to address these concerns? No surprise, perhaps, that many are calling for increased focus on digital transformation of services as the cornerstone of government reform. Hold on. Doesn’t this all sound rather familiar?
A Journey of a Thousand Miles
The digitization of government services is an area in which I have been thinking, talking, and writing for some time. Three decades ago, as an inexperienced computer scientist with a newly minted PhD, I headed off to the USA to investigate largescale software delivery challenges in the US government at the Software Engineering Institute, a Federally-funded research and development centre working with a range of government agencies. Through deep engagement in a variety of projects, I was part of some of the most influential early projects in digital technology adoption in the public sector. Consequently, I saw at first hand the opportunities and challenges these technologies brought. Over the next 20 years, I expanded my experiences in largescale digital transformation the public and private sectors working and living in the US, Spain, and the UK.
It is now almost 10 years since we captured many ideas from this period in the book, “Digitizing Government”. Written with my co-authors Jerry Fishenden and Mark Thompson, the book explored the history of digital technology adoption in government, highlighted the new wave of digitization that had been driving change in the UK’s government digital service delivery strategy, and called for a more ambitious vision for digital transformation in government based on viewing “government-as-a-platform”.
While acknowledging important advances in digital technology adoption to bring government services online and hence more accessible, the basic premise of that decade-old book was to provoke a different kind of conversation about the ambitions for digital government. As we said back then:
“Far from helping make government more nimble, effective and efficient, the use of technology has often fossilized the past, ‘freezing’ inefficient processes, hierarchies, services and organisations.”
Instead, our aim was to inspire public sector leaders toward a more far-reaching purpose. We summarized this as a revolution in service delivery:
“The true opportunity of ‘digital’ lies in a fundamental reshaping and improvement of government and our public services.”
We characterized this new vision in terms of “government-as-platform” in which services would on the one hand be developed efficiently to encourage reuse, sharing, and increased delivery through commoditized commercial solutions to drive value. And on the other hand, open up a more dynamic, adaptable, service-based design approach to ensure priority was placed where it counts: Better outcomes for citizens, businesses, and the wider public.
Contemporary and subsequent efforts picked up these themes. There is no doubt that the UK Government Digital Service team led the charge to bring more of a service-oriented perspective to public sector. It has been working across many UK government departments to improve digital capabilities. Furthermore, efforts it championed such as the design principles and services toolkit have been hugely influential not just in the UK government, but across the world and in many sectors. There is no doubt that progress toward more digitized government have been made.
Into the Maelstrom
However, looking back, such efforts have only partially been successful. Despite best efforts, over the past 10 years digital technology adoption and upgrade in the public sector has too often been slower than expected, cost more than planned, and delivered substantially less capability than promised to its users. As described recently in detail in National Audit Office (NAO) reports, the past 25 years of government digital projects “shows a consistent pattern of underperformance” that creates a gap in delivery that “wastes taxpayers’ money and delays improvements in public services”. Ouch.
How is this underperformance possible? In its review, the NAO paints a broad picture laying the blame not on any one area, but across a combination of causes. While not directly stated in this way, in effect the NAO suggests that digitization of the current practices was pursued rather than acknowledging the wider organizational digital transformation that was required. The NAO report concluded that government departments had mis-calibrated the impact of implementing digital change across 6 key areas:
Understanding aims, ambition and risk.
Engaging commercial partners.
Supporting legacy systems and data.
Creating meaningful capability.
Adapting delivery methods.
Ensuring appropriate funding mechanisms.
With hindsight, many of these concerns can be mapped back fairly directly to the “government-as-a-platform” messages of a decade earlier. However, it can be argued that a much bigger issue is at stake here: The transformation of government for a digital age.
This broader perspective has recently been taken up by Jerry Fishenden, a co-author on “Digitalizing Government”, in his latest book entitled “Fracture: The collision between technology and democracy – and how we fix it”. In this book Jerry expands on earlier themes to focus on “the redesign and renewal of democracy and our public institutions”.
The key argument of this book is a familiar one for those involved in applying digital approaches in the public sector. Rather than the disruptive changes seen in many sectors, Jerry believes that so far we have seen “a sprinkle of digital transformation glitter, but no real reform” in the UK government. With this book he highlights the fracture between the promise and ambitions of digital transformation and the reality of technological sticking plasters being used to bind open wounds to democracy. He would like to see attention moved away from narrow technological concerns toward policy making rooted in an iterative cycle of objective learning and refinement.
At the core of the book is Jerry’s review of digital initiatives over more than 30 years. Here, he highlights the consistent ambitions of successive government to use digital, data, and technology (DDaT) to make fundamental reforms to both the role and operational of government. However, as he painstakingly describes, almost unerringly these lofty goals become mired in the everyday concerns that dampen enthusiasm for change and pour cold water on initiatives that come to be defined as “risky”, “unorthodox”, or (heaven forbid) “brave”. Faced with such scrutiny to show relevance and meet pre-defined financial targets, the path of least resistance invariably prevails.
In response, Jerry calls for a deeper conversation on the meaning and implications of digital transformation in government. Far beyond the current fixation on driving online service delivery and optimizing operational efficiencies, he singles out the missing dialogue between policy makers and technologists as a primary culprit for the slow pace of change. To illustrate his point, he reviews the digital technology landscape through the lens of its impact on policy.
Using a rage of provocative examples, he considers issues such as the role of social media in manipulating citizen behaviour, the impact of Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as drones in surveillance, and the challenges to privacy introduced by the vast range of digital devices for personal data gathering. Such illustrations are critical. All the time, the point he emphasizes is that policy reform and digital technology adoption must be considered as two sides of the same coin. One without the other misses the point that digital disruption is forcing a revolution in how we look at work and life – including the role and operation of our national institutions.
This leads to Jerry’s final points about what must be done to improve the state of digital transformation in government. No surprise that he focuses many of his recommendations at policy makers and politicians. Here, he summarizes the need as “learning smarter, acting faster, and adapting better” to the opportunities and challenges of the digital age. It demands, he believes a “redesign of the organization of government and its relationship to citizens”.
To achieve this, Jerry describes 15 initiatives that form a “kickstarter kit” for digital government. A blend of organizational reforms and digital technology refocus, he believes that moving from today’s digital stalemate to this new digital democracy requires a combination of improvements across all of these areas. He sees this as the roadmap for the UK government to “rediscover and re-energize their original ambition by bringing digital, data, and technology into the heart of the policy making process”. Moreover, they bring together the experience of the past 30 years to define a new digital agenda for the public sector.
In Digital We Trust
The digital transformation of UK government services is undoubtedly one of the most urgent reforms taking place today. It is the cornerstone of efforts to drive up service levels and quality, and the foundation for the efficiencies required to reduce backlogs and manage growing demand. Yet, in Jerry Fishenden’s new book “Fracture” he makes 2 bold claims. The first is that historical evidence indicates that digital programmes have been unable to deliver on the promises they have made and the latest wave of digital pronouncements show no indications that they will buck this trend. The second is that the technology focused efforts being promoted in government miss the point that digital transformation will only be successful if technology adoption is matched with the organizational changes that drive policy delivery for a digital age. If he is correct, the UK’s digital ambitions will continue to struggle without fundamental reform to re-energize and reorient toward these more radical concerns.