Play time is over for the public sector, says digital government guru Dominic Campbell

SUMMARY:

The world as we knew it is gone and with it the big bad expensive ways of delivering government. Now is the time for change. For new delivery models but equally new ways of designing our public services, fit for the future not held back by the past.

dom125-1In 2008, having spent five years in local government in London, digital government specialist Dominic Campbell established FutureGov to support  government – particularly local government – in the UK, Europe and the United States to better understand new media and draw on social technology-based strategies and tools in the areas of business improvement and improved citizen engagement. FutureGov has a simple mission statement: create better public services through elegantly designed technology. In this article, Campbell issues a rallying cry to the public sector. 

Play time is over.

The world as we knew it is gone and with it the big bad expensive ways of delivering government. Now is the time for change. For new delivery models but equally new ways of designing our public services, fit for the future not held back by the past.

So how do we accelerate the pace of change? How do we bring true openness to a closed world? How do we put people at the heart of these new kinds of public services? On a practical level we need to talk about the importance of design and new ways of working; and more widely we need to discuss principles and values; and, power and disruption.

We’ve come a long way from what started out as a community of digital govvies knocking on the door, to infiltrating the government around the world really grabbing the bull by the horns and going for it. Thankfully we’ve (mostly) moved away from teaching people how to tweet and started to force those in power in government to think big and take digital and design seriously.

But we can’t celebrate yet. The big money is still going on the big bad contracts and the door remains hardly ajar for those building the future. We need to work hard to build trust and confidence and find safe spaces to enable this new world to grow, and for the parallel universe to be tested and spread until it is mature enough to take over from the old.

I’m on a mission to say to people that we need a new generation of entrepreneurial public servants inside and outside of government. It is possible. It is needed. But to do so we all need to up our game, to up our aspiration and to think big, starting small to create momentum and belief to get new and creative ways of thinking going in government. Every Google moonshot starts with a small step for mankind. Where are our moonshots for public services?

Ways of working

And there is an emerging roadmap to get us there. For the nervous and the newly initiated, there is a role for design as ‘risk management’ in creating a future that is yet to exist, using prototyping and small steps to avoid high risk moves and big mistakes. We need to provide replicable guidance to open innovation; to see design as a source of great creativity; to focus on outcomes not process. We need to build a government that truly orbits around us, rather than expect us, your citizens, to do all the hard graft and understand our way around you.

A purposeful design-led approach is fundamental to re-thinking the role of government in the 21st Century, creating the conditions for innovation and change in a world of embedded power structures, vested interests and powerful organisational immune systems programmed to snuff out any threats to the status quo.

These new ways of working and the means of getting to new public services are almost as important as the outcomes themselves. It is how we make this change happen that is the change as much as the change itself – open, collaborative, participatory, co-owned. Yes things will go wrong, and yes things are always in beta. But at least we’re being honest at last, beyond the fairy tale project plans and Gantt charts that are out of date the second they are written. Top down planning is often little more than a cross-our-fingers-and-hope strategy for change.

In a world that is beginning to embrace design-led, agile and transparent ways of working, we have a new means to a better end. But we can’t mess about. This isn’t just for fun. We have to show that this isn’t a fad. There are those who are watching and waiting for us to fail and they must see us walking our talk. We must deliver on a new world in a way that is true to our values, with both the way we do our work and the outcomes of open innovation being critical to our success.

Digital alone is not the answer. We must design first, then get digital later. In fact, empathy first. Above all I’m convinced that bringing empathy to government will unlock so much – working alongside the people we serve and understanding their lives before we purposefully and passionately set about looking for new ways of delivering those outcomes. Imagine, think big, think huge. Then make, create.

We must bring together the politics of change management, the thoughtful human centricity of design and the power of tech to hardwire change and scale impact.

Principles and values

Beyond these important practicalities, we also need to give greater thought to our principles and values as well.

This is not just the preserve of politics to which we’re immune in management, tech, innovation and design. We imbue everything with our values and judgements. It’s not something we can be casual about, we must think through ways to be aware of the judgement calls we make and how they impact on the approaches we take and services we build.

We can’t just sleepwalk into this stuff, we must think about the impact of decisions we make and the values we want to design into the public services we build. Technology and open data is not neutral anymore than anything else we do. We need to think carefully about whether and how we want to design with people. To give them access to their data – or not. To support participation in public services – or not.

We must think deliberately about every design decision we make. No management truth. No single right answer. Only a negotiation of the relationship between people, politics and power through which we make decisions that are transparent and co-owned.

Power and disruption

There is much left to do in terms of change in government. We’ve mastered tweaks and we’re getting there on transactions. But too often transactional improvement is masquerading as transformation and we risk stopping there.

In truth we’ve hardly even started to disrupt and transform government. We need to be articulating what kind of government we want clearly, and the role it can play in the 21st century and what role digital has within that. Even more importantly we must talk about the role of the citizen and how the government enables them to take on the strain in a coordinated, distributed way that is reliable and enables people to reach their own aspirations, not dance to government’s beat.

The time is right to actively consider and disrupt vested interests and embedded power structures and open up the opportunity for truly new ways of doing things in the hands of the many not the few. Collaborative public services, supported by a new role for government. Government as a platform, a community organiser, a cheerleader. One that unleashes everybody’s creativity – from civil servants to practitioners and citizens.

Play time is over

This means government needs to stop dabbling. To focus on articulating what it alone can deliver and to deliver on that, and to enable innovation at scale. There are great examples where many have proven this point and it is now in government’s lap to help the spread and scale of new practice.

Use austerity as an opportunity but more than that, excel. Go further and invest in change in an unprecedented way. Not just financially, but truly just throw your full weight behind it. Unleash a new wave of government entrepreneurialism.

This is the future and we have to stay strong. Believe in what we’re doing. Create a partnership of the brave and the bold. Those inside looking out, seeking new ways to solve old problems. Those outside looking in, seeking people to grab a hold of them and give their ideas a home.

One of my favourite quotes from the superhero movie Captain America is “Sometimes to build a better world it means tearing the old one down”

It’s time to tear the old one down

Now let’s get busy.

Published with kind permission of FutureGov

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