One Team Government has been described as a grassroots movement in Whitehall that aims to bridge the divide between policy and digital professionals. Why is this important? Well, historically the two disciplines have largely acted in isolation – whereby policy creators don’t always understand the realities of implementation, and digital folk are left out of the initial ideation stages of service design.
This is one (although not the only one) of the reasons that government has a poor track record in successful technology projects. I often cite the example of Universal Credit – a policy that had broad political support – but suffered a number of failures in the early stages of implementation because the policy didn’t take into account the realities of what was possible with the technology.
However, One Team Government hopes to bring these two disciplines together, creating a space for them both to get a better understanding each other, with the aim of better aligning policy making and the creation of digital services.
Paul Maltby, director of data projects, communities and local government, joined me on stage at the Think Digital Government event in London last week, to discuss his involvement with One Team Government and how the ‘movement’ could help improve services for citizens.
Maltby was involved with the organising of the first One Team Government ‘un-conference’ back in June, which provided a horizontal platform for policy and digital civil servants to come together and learn from each other. However, Maltby was keen to emphasise that this isn’t a formal government policy or programme. He said:
It’s not a formal government thing. It’s a very bottom up community that emerged from conversations that are happening between people who span that divide in government between the policy world and the digital world, with the sense that we need to overcome those differences and learn more from each other.
There’s not enough connection historically between them. And I think it’s inevitable that these worlds are colliding.
And commenting on its importance, Maltby said that he wished he’d had a similar space during his early days as a civil servant. He said:
For me the most powerful part of this is providing that horizontal, bottom up community of reformers in government, able to communicate with each other and share ideas. Share frustrations. Have each other’s back. I’ve spent a lot of time being, I guess, a reformer in government – and now I’m a bit more senior, it’s the sort of thing that I would have loved earlier on in my civil service career.
To help create a space where you can push and change against the system. Government is quite hard to go bust, it doesn’t work like the normal business world, you have try quite hard. So in the public sector you have to find other mechanisms to enable change and disruption. This is a really interesting path.
What does it mean in practice?
It’s very early days for One Team Government, but off the back of the first un-conference in June, the ‘movement’ is already gaining traction elsewhere in the public sector – with, for example, a similar event planned in Scotland later this year.
And whilst Maltby recognises that government is a different beast to the private sector, he also adds that digital “came for Blockbusters, it came for media, it came oil and gas, it came for retail – why do we think it’s not coming for public services in that same transformational, disruptive way?”
As highlighted above, part of the thinking behind One Team Government is to fix the historical problem government has had in successful technology delivery. He said:
I think that’s absolutely the space that people are trying to drive towards. Those folks that are working higher up steam around the political world, the policy world, are not in touch with the reality of implementing systems. That’s a long-standing, structural question. What I see over the years and even more recently, is that you have very bright policy people who do think about how things work in reality. But policy officials are trying to find a path through these quite complicated situational things [politics].
For me, there’s a lot to be said for people understanding each other and respecting those different disciplines. I’ve seen policy people rolling their eyes at digital people obsessing over the user need and not understanding that there’s a necessity in this work. At the same time I’ve seen digital people saying, who are these policy idiots that can’t even understand that the world’s changed? There’s a grain of truth in both of those.
Maltby said that it’s about pulling digital higher up stream, closer to the important stages of policy creation, and also pulling policy people into the realities of the modern digital world. He said:
You wouldn’t forgive a senior government person if they didn’t understand how finances or the law worked.
Maltby described his first interactions with the One Team Government movement, where he said that it’s got a “different spirit and energy” to a typical government programme. The event in June, for example, was organised by himself and about nine other people, who all met up on a weekly Google Hangout and didn’t really know each other beforehand. He said:
I figured that everyone else knew each other and I was the slightly out of touch guy, but I don’t think that was true. I think a number of people had come together in that mechanism and put that thing on, doing it because they wanted to do it. Not because some government official expected to them to. There’s a real power in that. It’s important to keep up that momentum.
And for Maltby, One Team Government isn’t about creating a new class of profession, or completely changing the structure of policy and digital roles in government, but more about creating a space for people to get a better understanding of what each other do. He said:
I think at the moment it’s mostly people chatting and understanding. At the June event, it was nice from my perspective, having had a foot in both these worlds, you could see them understanding each other and having a bit more respect. But I think if we have a place where people understand those different disciplines better and work out what that connection looks like, we can have a place where reformers have a space where they feel like they’re not alone. Government can be a lonely business.
I think then it’s not people working on particular projects, I see this more getting people to shift how they think and work, but in their day jobs, rather than at being a government process that has its own activity. But let’s see where it goes…
From my perspective, this is entirely necessary and a really positive step for digital in government. Policy and digital need to become more closely aligned for citizen services to be reformed in a way that is meaningful. Otherwise it’s two different professions marching to the beat of the their own drum, hoping that at some point it all works out.
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Disclosure - diginomica/government is working in partnership with Think Digital Partners, the creators of the Think Digital Government 2017 event.