Digital government's delivery crisis demands radical change

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan October 23, 2014
A powerful and compelling call to arms from the head of the UK Government Digital Service that has lessons for digital government around the world.

The demand for digital transformation is not a policy option. It’s a delivery crisis.

A bold statement from Mike Bracken, the head of the UK Government Digital Service (GDS), but one that should resonate with administrations around the globe, particularly as GDS is proving to be a template for reform in the likes of the US, Canada and Australia.

GDS was set up by the UK government to help drive digital transformation of the way public services are delivered to the citizen. To that end, it's worked with central government departments to try to change the way that the civil service administration approaches the procurement and delivery of public sector IT.

That's a major challenge. I've spoken before about the problem of the political will meeting the administrative won't in the UK public sector. There's an inherent resistance to change in many circles and a pride in the 'cult of the generalist'.

The theory, expressed eloquently recently by Martin Donnelly, Permanant Secretary at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is one of an impartial administrative organisation that sits outside of politics and policy and advises based on impartiality, rather than any partiality informed by specialist knowledge.

The mindset at work here was parodied in the 1980s BBC sitcom Yes Minister, when one civil servant who's just provided in-depth excellent advice and recommendations is asked why he hasn't progressed to a more senior post. I will rise no further, he replies, alas I am an expert.

The problem is that this attitude has also contributed to the lamentable track record of 'big ticket' IT programs over the decades, a status quo that GDS now finds itself trying to overturn and frankly running into resistance that at times seems inherently hardwired into the civil service DNA.

In a speech to the Institute of Government think tank this week, Bracken delivers a searing indictment of this state of affairs, stating that there needs to be some radical rethinking:

Twenty five years into the era of digital transformation, the Internet has a 100% track record of success making industries simpler to users while forcing organisations to fundamentally change how they’re structured. These characteristics are not going away. Yet the effect on the civil service has been, until very recently, marginal.

This is because we deferred our digital development by grouping digital services into enormous, multi-year IT contracts, or what we refer to as ‘Big IT’. Or in short, we gave away our digital future to the IT crowd.

While most large organisations reversed these arrangements we have only recently separated our future strategy – digital literacy and digital service provision – from the same contracts that handle commodity technology. By clinging to this model for 15 years, we have created a huge problem for everyone involved in delivery and policy.

There are two things that need to be tackled head one, argues Bracken: delivery and skills. While his argument is steeped in the language of the UK parliamentary system, the underlying principles are universal. He posits:

In a digital age, traditional policy-making is largely broken. It is slow, inflexible, unnecessarily complicated, afraid of technology and afraid of change.

We’re stuck with a statute book that demands wet signatures, which holds back services whether they be benefits or car registration, preventing them from being as simple as they could be. Our Victorian legacy prevails in our language.

Take the simple act of  registering which, until this year, required the “head of the household” to register on behalf of the family…his family, being the intent of the language.

Or take the archaic legalese of a service like accelerated property possession which at one point asks users whether the property is a dwellinghouse. How many of you live in a dwellinghouse?

The benefits of ditching the paper driving licence have been clear for a decade, but because of a fear of change, fear of failure and, yes, fear of digital, it hasn’t happened. We’ve forgotten the art of the possible.

Success out there

Bracken alludes to the 'political will, adminstrative won't' factor when he notes:

Many Ministers are frustrated by an inability to get things done. As of this month it’s legal to rip an audio CD for the first time, 23 years since the MP3 codec was approved. That’s a small example, but it shows that, if it’s an anachronism you want, a policy-driven approach is the way to get one.

Sadly, our existing culture in Whitehall fetishises the complex in the name of giving Ministers ever more detailed policy options. Front-line civil servants, struggling to deliver services in the real world, too often lose out to those who relish the theoretical edge case, adding more complexity while burnishing the reputations of those who “display a real grip of policy detail”.

People on the front line see the cost of that complexity; the perverse incentives, the failure demand, the confusion, the frustration, the waste of money and human potential.

There are success stories, points out Bracken, where complexity is being driven out. One UK social security benefit, the Carer's Allowance, potentially required applicants to answer 500 questions in order to claim their £61.35 weekly allowance.

The Department for Work and Pensions has now removed half of those questions, which has had a positive effect, notes Bracken:

The result: a far more effective, efficient and human service. Now, nearly 60% of carers choose to apply online, up from 28% 12 months ago.

To achieve more such transformations demands that the civil service be less fearful and learns lessons from the private sector. Bracken cites another digital success story, an online system that allows people to book visits to see someone in prison which has:

made it much easier for friends and families to visit loved ones in prison, helping to rehabilitate inmates and reduce reoffending rates.

But behind the scenes the prison service is stuck with a decade-old IT system. Because we’re afraid to throw the old machinery away, staff at prisons are forced to copy and paste visit bookings from the new system into their old software. A block on development prevents their integration – in other words, they’re not allowed learn the skills to fix the problem.

Take Internet retailers. If they worked like the prison service works right now, behind the scenes you’d have people entering orders into stand-alone databases; typing, printing and posting letters of confirmation; manually taking stock, and entering that data into yet another database. They wouldn’t survive in 2014, much less thrive.

There's a deep need to rethink attitudes to 'failure', advises Bracken:

Build a core service quickly, then fix it and continually improve it by concentrating on user needs. Then, you not only accept that failure is inevitable, but that it’s  desirable. We should say to critics in the media or elsewhere that failure is an essential part of government, just as it is in private enterprise. And the cost of failure should be tiny, dwarfed by its rewards.

Every government service now needs to pass a Service Standards assessment. We publish all those assessments, whether or not the service passes. Some don’t. So the teams go back, make adjustments, and try again. Sometimes we stop the project, but it’s having spent only a few tens of thousand of pounds, not millions because we’ve signed a binding contract.

The cost of failure is only enormous if you plan to launch with a big bang on a fixed date in a couple of years time, with the world’s media and public watching – but before you’ve really started the work to understand how to best meet the needs of the people who will use the service. Big bang was fine in 1986. It is a disaster waiting to happen in 2014.

One issue that has plagued the UK public sector has been the skills shortage following decades of using outsourced expertise. This has to change, says Bracken:

The answer is not a box in the corner labelled “digital” which you open on the rare occasions you need some Internet. The answer is to flood your organization wth digital people and let them lead. They’re the ones who run successful organisations now, because they’re the ones who know how to.

These days, sadly, those impartial advisers don’t know enough. Advice must come from the doers – the people at the coal face that understand the shortcomings of their services and who are brimming with ideas for how to make them better.

We must build a civil service with a bias for action and delivery at its centre, in place of an endless cycle of critiques.

We need a civil service with fewer critiques and more makers. We need technicians to put platforms in place, and service managers to build upon them. We need leaders for whom the idea of using real-time performance data is a no-brainer, not an alien concept.

And we need user researchers and data analysts to do the hard work of understanding user needs and behaviour to continually improve services.

All of this can be done, if what Bracken calls the '”false binary” of policy and delivery can be crashed through. But it means starting again, he concludes:

This is a chance to rethink tax, rethink benefits, and rethink how people come in and out of the country. Starting from the beginning to build the services we need will prove quicker, cheaper, and more responsive to what our political masters actually want. It’s better than the alternative: attempting to build on top of old, broken machines.

My take

A bold, brave and long overdue speech that was delivered from the heart and without recourse to notes by Bracken.  It's also a speech with which I can find no fault and can only urge everyone in the public sector around the world to take on board, digest and start to act upon.

Well said, Mike Bracken, well said indeed.

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