Government is today one of the few remaining environments in which disruption is a dirty word. There is an bias to inertia. It needs to be replaced by a bias to action.
It’s been quite a week for powerful voices coming out and questioning the direction of government digital transformation. We heard from Baroness Lane Fox of Soho who was responsible for the initial review and recommendations under Prime Minister David Cameron that led to the setting-up of the Government Digital Service (GDS).
Speaking in the House of Lords, Baroness Lane Fox of Soho issued a grave warning as she reflected on the current mood in Westminster circles relating to digital progress:
The good work being done to help the government modernise – and to make it work for people who live their lives digitally – is being dismantled. Departmental silos are creeping back, replicating cost and inefficiency and, most importantly, letting down citizens. GDS is celebrated and copied around the world. Last year we were ranked top for digital government by the UN. How ironic if we fail to recognise and nurture this great asset.
Now the man who as Cabinet Office Minister was perhaps GDS’s biggest supporter in office, as well as being the politician who refused to go away as tech suppliers and government departments were put on notice that all things IT had to change, has weighed in with a powerful speech which has put the cat among the civil service pigeons.
Lord Maude used his Speaker’s House address earlier in the week to put forward a detailed critique of UK civil service organisational culture that contained a number of side swipes at the pursuit of process without achievement, warning:
The Civil Service as an institution is deeply flawed, and in urgent need of radical reform…The Civil Service suffers from institutional complacency. As the new Minister responsible for the Civil Service, every draft speech or article presented to me started: “The British Civil Service is the best in the world.” Yet the complaints by Ministers in all parties about the lack of institutional capability, inefficiency and failed implementation were legion.
While conceding that government failures cannot simply be laid exclusively at the door of Sir Humphrey and his cohorts, Maude did note that there is a tendency for the administrative establishment to form a defensive front:
All too often the first reaction of the Civil Service when something wrong is discovered is either to cover it up or to find a scapegoat, often someone who is not a career civil servant and who is considered dispensable. There seems to be an absolute determination to avoid any evidence that the permanent Civil Service is capable of failure.
Another indicator is that if a Minister decides that a Civil Service leader is not equipped for his or her task, this has to be dressed up as “a breakdown in the relationship”, with the unspoken suggestion that this is at least as much the fault of the Minister as of the civil servant. It can never be admitted that the mandarin was inadequate in any way.
One of the running jokes of the 1980s political sitcom Yes Minister was that successful civil servants were expected to be generalists and that specialists were an underclass who could expect no progression up the greasy pole to Permanent Secretary. "Alas, I am an expert," lamented one civil servant after providing the Minister with some excellent advice. Maude indicated in his speech that this is a pretty accurate reflection of reality:
Part of maintaining the Mandarin mystique is that they pretty much always get the top jobs. Policy nearly always trumps operational and technical skills for the leadership roles. It feels like a class divide. There are the white-collar policy Mandarins, and the blue-collar technicians who do operations, finance, procurement, IT and digital, project management, HR, and so on. All the attempts to create genuine parity of esteem have failed. This has to change in the future. Many government failures could have been prevented if operational and technical teams had the same access to Ministers as do policy officials.
Maude cited as a case in point the beleagured Universal Credit programme, whose IT shortcomings have been well tracked. Little wonder there are problems as Maude pointed out:
Policy was developed in Whitehall, ‘implementation’ was in Sheffield and IT development in Warrington. Not surprising that hundreds of millions were written off in wasted costs, whereas implementers brought into the policy development process early could have pushed back on policy changes that inevitably complicated the project. It was interesting that the PAC (Public Accounts Committee) Report into UC stated that “The problems came to the attention of the Department as a result of a review commissioned by the Secretary of State”. In other words it was the Minister calling the attention of officials to the implementation car crash, which is not the way round it is meant to be.
There’s a fundamental issue underpinning all of this, and it has direct relevance to digital transformation in government, which is that as in most bureaucracies, the civil service culture is hostile to innovation. Maude explained:
One of the reasons for this is that bureaucracies, unlike most high-performing organisations, and indeed most militaries, have no “up or out” expectation. This sounds brutal, but shouldn’t be. There comes a point in any demanding work environment where some people on a career path have reached a point from which they will not rise any further. It doesn’t mean they all should all be pushed out; every organisation needs continuity, experience and an institutional memory.
But if you have too many people who have exhausted their ability to progress AND their ability to make a positive contribution, they tend to justify their continued presence in the organisation by questioning, delaying, or obstructing action. They become part of the bias to inertia. There’s an old saying - for every one person trying to make something happen there are four trying to stop it.
Alongside the need for a leaner organisation is a vacuum of “strong functional leadership at the heart of government”. Maude admitted that this might sound “boring and technocratic”, but it’s an essential point he makes:
A number of functions are common across the whole of government. Every department claims that what it does is completely unique and distinctive, and of course much is genuinely unique. But most of their requirements for property, IT and digital, procurement, HR, finance and project management are common to the whole of government. And even when they are not, you still need one place where there’s a critical mass of technical expertise.
He pointed to the work done during his time at the Cabinet Office on the Efficiency and Reform Programme in cutting IT costs as a positive example:
We re-negotiated contracts with the government’s biggest suppliers, reformed procurement to open government contracts to smaller UK-based suppliers, improved dramatically the success rate of the government’s major projects, exited numerous properties and upgraded much of the rest, and Britain went from being a country which was a byword for expensive government IT car crashes to last year being ranked by the UN top in the world for digital government.
Sir Humphrey strikes back
Maude stayed in his Cabinet Office post for far longer than most ministers do. This gave him a unique ability to push through reforms over a multi-year period without the distractions of a new Minister stepping in to take over. As Sir Arnold noted in Yes Minister, the civil service loves a good reshuffle as it means everything can start again with new Ministers who won’t answer back - “Time we gave them a little spin!”
But Maude did finally step down and that was the signal for the fight back against reform and ‘new ways’ to begin. This has disappointed him, but clearly not come as a surprise:
For much of the Mandarin-ate this was an assault on their autonomy and empires. And what we know about empires is that they fight back. And boy, are they fighting back! The mantra tends to be, “We definitely want to continue with the reforms. But they’re now embedded in the departments, and it’s definitely now safe to relax the central controls.”
When you hear those words you know that what they really mean is that the reforms are embedded six feet under, and that the departments are cheerfully going back to their old ways. So GDS, which became a model for other governments to follow, including in the USA and Australia, is becoming side-lined and underpowered. The powerful and revolutionary idea of “Government-as-a-Platform” is dead.
My only thought when I heard this speech was one that I have said almost once a week since Maude departed - despair that he did depart. That’s whent the impetus was lost and Sir Humphrey and the Oligopoly could breath a sign of relief. As he put it in his speech:
The empire struck back.
And so it has. Once, IT suppliers were called in to see Maude and given notice that things had to change; now we have a digital minister who excitedly posts selfies of him with CEOs of IT companies like a star-struck fanboy. As my colleague Derek du Preez put it the other day:
If you doubt the validity of what Maude’s saying in his excellent speech, look no further than the pained and pitifully defensive reactions to it from the likes of John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service and the man most accused of dismantling the digital progress made over the past few years, or Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood.
I’d like to think that what Maude - and Lane Fox before him - has said this past week will make a difference and lead to a revival of the reform and innovation agenda in UK government digital transformation.
But I fear the damage is done.
The big outsourcing contracts that were definitely going to go away are in fact being extended and new ones being opened up for tender. We have a Department for International Trade that’s actively promoting Amazon’s products via webinars. (Paid for by who, I wonder?)
We have a Head of the Civil Service who keynotes at Hewlett Packard promotional events. And we have a minister responsible for broadband who actively does the work of the BT press office by tweeting out their press releases.
As for GDS, that magnificent achievement that international governments looked at in envy and sought to emulate? Well, one consolation is that it continues to power digital transformation in government. The only problem being, it’s other countries governments that seem to be benefiting the most...
This was a powerful intervention from a genuine champion of digital transformation - and one that reminds us, regardless of political affiliation, of just what's missing today.