What Obamacare can learn from the UK not being crap at digital

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan December 10, 2013
It's one year on from the publication of the UK government's digital strategy and Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude is pleased with progress to date, even if there's still a long way to go.

In a week which has all too painfully reminded us of the ongoing shortcomings in public sector IT practice in the UK, it’s necessary for the sake of sanity to note that change is happening, albeit at inconsistent pace.

Yesterday marked the first anniversary of the publication of the UK government’s digital strategy, a fitting time for diginomica to sit down with Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude to get an update on progress to date.

Despite the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) 24 hours earlier giving out what can only be politely described as mixed messages about its commitment to the underlying principle of Digital by Default espoused by the Cabinet Office, Maude is in avuncular mood as he ticks off the successes to date.

“In 2010 I asked Martha Lane-Fox [until recently the UK government’s official Digital Champion] to do a quick survey of how we could massively step up our digital offerings. We have been attempting to implement what she recommended to the letter.

“She said we should find the best digital leader in the country, which we did and that’s Mike Bracken [Head of the Government Digital Service]. We talked in the Civil Service Reform Plan about becoming a much more digital government. Progress on the Civil Service Reform Plan has been mixed, but that is one area where we’ve made real and serious progress.

“It’s a year since we published the digital strategy which was about introducing Digital by Default in a way that would benefit users, government and the country as a whole. We wanted to deliver services that are better and more accessible and quicker for businesses and citizens to interact with government and are just better for the sum of human happiness.

“We wanted to introduce digital services that are so good that people would choose to use them. We wanted to invest in digital skills. We wanted to open up work to the very vibrant UK tech sector which was under the previous arrangements effectively bypassed for a lot of government work. We wanted to do all this and to save shedloads of money for the taxpayer, around £1.7 or £1.8 billion a year.”

Spending other people's money

That last point produced some hurdles to jump in a public sector culture hardwired into cutting blank cheques backed by other people's money to large IT providers with little real expectation of a return or a belief that there is any other way of behaving. Maude admits:

“One of the problems we had early on was a credibility issue. You’d go around Whitehall and say 'Well actually this piece of work could be done for a tenth of the cost you expected'. But people were so accustomed to being told if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

“But we have shown that we can do things for staggeringly less than people expect. There is now a high degree of credibility. We are way beyond the stage of trying to get the attention of government departments, we are now at the stage where we are beating off demand. Frankly that’s a quality problem to have.”

One of Maude’s first actions in taking up his role as Minister for the Cabinet Office was to summon the major suppliers to government, metaphorically rip up their existing contracts and read them the riot act. Some suppliers assumed this was gesture politics and Maude would be gone soon enough.

But in fact the minister has stayed in situ despite the government partaking in its usual musical chairs routine of shuffling its team. This consistency of presence has meant that even the most cynical of suppliers in the so-called oligopoly of large providers has realised that things are different.

Not everything's going right for the government, but digital's in the right direction

But I wondered where does the balance now sit? We’ve seen the brandishing of the big stick. Is it time for a bit more carrot? Maude explains:

“Where we have a relationship with a big supplier, it needs to feel more like a partnership. That needs a high degree of visibility and transparency. We don’t expect to continue to work with very opaque contracts or to have contracts that have automatic extensions. We expect to see more capabilities brought back in-house.

“There should also be a separation between the integration of services and the provision. We would not expect the same supplier to be the integrator and provider of services in the same area of government.

“We do still have a lot of legacy IT. I sometimes recount a conversation with the Prime Minister of Estonia, which is really the world’s leading e-government. I asked him how this had happened. He said that when Estonia became an independent country they had no legacy and no money. Well, in the UK we have replicated the second of those, but we do have a lot of legacy.

“But legacy comes to an end. The smartest of the oligopoly will see that coming and want to embrace the new world rather than relying on milking the old world. But the jury’s out.”

Old habits die hard

The jury’s also out on how receptive the public sector is to the forces of digital change. One year on from the publication of the digital strategy and not everyone is buying into it in the same way.

For example, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), has yet to publish a digital strategy despite this being a key requirement of the Digital by Default thinking across all of Whitehall.

This works...

It is also now acknowledged in the latest digital progress report from GDS that its deadline of March next year to transition all agencies websites to the single GOV.UK has been pushed back to July.

Maude concedes:

“Some departments are ahead of others for sure, but what the report shows is the digital revolution has taken hold. You’ll see from the departmental updates that progress is not consistent, but this is such important stuff that it has to be a priority.

“Progress is not consistent. Our approach is to be pretty open and to say when things aren’t going so well. If we don’t do that then you won’t believe us when we tell you they are going well. I want all government departments to make progress at the speed of the fastest.”

Universal discredit

But this is the week in which the world was given a horrible insight into the state of affairs on the Universal Credit programme, the highest profile IT project in the UK public sector and one that bears a striking resemblance to a complete and utter shambles of the old school ' computer cock-up costs the taxpayer billions' variety.

Notably the team at DWP told a Parliamentary committee this week that while the Universal Credit systems development had begun from a Digital by Default basis, this had now been dropped - hardly in keeping with the policy being pushed by the Cabinet Office.

With this and clear signs of tensions between GDS and the DWP - denied or glossed over by both sides, but self-evident to all onlookers - it’s tempting to see the DWP programme as an unfortunate exemplar of a last stand by the ‘bad old ways’.

Maude is diplomatic in his response to such suggestions:

“There are pluses and minuses in every department. The team that has developed the exemplar digital solution that everyone recognises as being the strategic long term solution for Universal Credit has been a DWP team.

“It was never about the solution being provided exclusively by GDS. It’s about GDS working with in-house teams, bringing contractors from outside. The DWP team working on the digital solution has GDS members in there and in the space of three months they developed the relatively thin spine of a digital solution.

“Where we are now is that there is a universal view that digital is the long term strategic solution that will be built out. It is intended to cater for all types of claimant groups. We’re testing with small groups first. It’s very intensive alpha testing, keeping it simple and building out with larger groups into beta testing.

“The four steps of discovery, alpha, beta and go live avoids that big switch on moment as we saw with the Obamacare website in the US and it didn’t work. The intention is that for Universal Credit, the digital solution will be developed in parallel so that we don’t suddenly switch it on and hope that it works!”

In summary though, one year on and Maude is pleased with overall progress towards the government’s digital ambitions.

Twenty five ‘high volume and high profile’ services across government were chose by GDS as exemplars of digital transformation. Of those, one is live (student loans), 15 are in beta, six are in alpha, and two in discovery phase.

...this doesn't

In addition, the move to the single GOV.UK website has been a success both in terms of functionality and design recognition. Its open source nature means that other governments are taking an interest in replicating it with the New Zealand government doing just that.

Maude compares the launch of GOV.UK to the disastrous flop of the Obamacare website in the US and boasts:

“We have gained international recognition.

“When the Obamacare website was released to universal criticism, it was interesting that a lot of commentators said ‘why didn’t they do what the British government is doing?’ Instead, they did it the old fashioned way.”

He concludes therefore:

“We have gone from being a byword for being crap at this stuff to being a world leader.”


A long way to go and inconsistent progress to date.

BUT there is undoubtedly progress and much to be pleased about after the first year of the digital strategy.

The route mapped out is entirely correct and will deliver ever greater benefits if followed through.

As the Universal Credit debacle illustrates all too clearly however, bad habits and bad practice have become a cultural norm in the government sector. It’s going to take a long time to break free of the legacy of that.

Nonetheless a good start has been made.

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