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Governments need to realise they are not a special case in this digital revolution

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez May 29, 2014
Government agencies are unique in their activity, but from a technology standpoint are they really that big a deal?

I had a conversation with someone recently that is heavily involved in digital transformation across government agencies and I was quite surprised about some

of their comments regarding the difficulty in getting public sector bodies to innovate and become organisations that take advantage of powerful internet-based tools. I've been covering public sector technology as a subject for a few years now and I think I've been conditioned to believe that government is a special case when it comes to digital transformation – journalists, and the public, are consistently told that government legacy systems are as old and complex as they come. This is then amplified by the fact that many government bodies, and I'm talking from UK experience here (but applies to many around the world), are tied into contracts with big suppliers that are too hard to walk away from and legally too difficult to change. Thus stifling innovation.

We are always told that “it's just not that easy” and that there's a web of systems in place that store sensitive public data that can't simply just be untangled. To be honest I've criticised government projects when they've gone wrong, but I've never really questioned this idea, and have always given agencies some leeway because of this 'extra challenge' that they face. I've always assumed that given the nature of government, it must be unique, and as a result it faces technical problems that are beyond what a normal enterprise would face.

When I said this to the government digital person in question (the name of which I'm not going to disclose), they said a number of things that caught me by surprise:

  • On the matter of size - “It's rubbish, government bodies are the size of a small bank. We aren't so big that it's impossible.”
  • On the matter of complex, unique systems - “These are systems that often just require a database look-up. It's not that hard.”
  • On the matter of walking away from contracts/projects - “You can always get out of contracts. Just pay up and walk away.”

The person in question, who isn't some junior government bod by any stretch, was absolutely adamant that government isn't a special case and that most of the problems that arise are down to people and governance – as is often the case for any other enterprise out there, and so we should stop making excuses for the public sector.

Some examples

Now some people reading this may think that it's very easy to say these things when having a chat with a journalist, but in reality how easy are they to carry out in practice? But I can assure you that said person then went on to reel off a number of examples in the UK government, some of which I can't talk about in full detail just yet, that prove that if you are determined enough and willing to take on political agendas and over the top bureaucracy, you can get there. Here are some examples that spring to mind:

  • One project that both Stuart and I have written about extensively is the Department for Work & Pension's welfare reform scheme, Universal Credit. Far from perfect, this was a classic case of a big-scale government project gone wrong. Traditional procurement methods, traditional suppliers, traditional chaos. Millions of £s has been written off as a result and ultimately the 'traditional' system is going to be ditched in a few years. HOWEVER, and I can't believe I'm saying this, it seems that this wake-up call has launched the project into the digital age. From what I'm hearing, DWP has some good digital people now that have been able to develop a system that is working, tackles the complexities of Universal Credit, is being created using agile methodologies, and has been produced at a fraction of the cost. Bingo.
  • Another example included one government department that has been tied into an outsourcing agreement with one of the world's largest IT service providers for years, which has now simply payed up and walked away from the contract because it felt that it wasn't getting what it needed from the agreement. They are now creating truly excellent digital services from scratch, with a far smaller price tag.
  • Finally, there has been an ongoing government project for a number of years that has cost millions and hasn't been very successful. Again, with a traditional supplier. The system being created isn't particularly complicated (but quite high profile) and it has been a cash cow for those working on it – but delivered very little benefit for those using it. I can't say much more, but a new system is being developed in-house by the government department's new digital team and I would put money on it being far more successful than the one at present.

The problem

The point I'm trying to make is that the old way of doing things isn't working anymore for government. If we have another Universal Credit project under the next government, and if it is carried out in the way previous national programmes have (take a look at the failings under the NHS), we are just headed for more digital disaster. So what's the problem? The person I was speaking to reckons it comes down to people problems and politics. Policy makers have changed regularly over the years, with messy systems being piled on top of messy systems to support this, which has been difficult to unpick because of their inability to operate within existing contracts.

Add this to a number of people working in government whose jobs rely on making things even more complicated – I'm looking at you procurement – you get a system that is so unnecessarily complicated and which has nothing in fact to do with the technology. We've got examples of complex government departments on their way to getting it right, which has been achieved through sheer determination of a select few that aren't willing to get bogged down in the politics and who are challenging those that think a pile of paperwork and ticking a number of boxes is a technology win.

Yes of course your legacy systems are going to play a role for the foreseeable future, yes you need to maximise your ROI on any existing investments, yes you're going to have strategic relationships that you want to take advantage of. But basically I just want to relay the following message: This isn't impossible and it's a challenge all enterprises face. Government, get over yourself, you're not that special.

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