What if we've been doing digital government all wrong?

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 20, 2016
"There have been no new ideas for over a decade and what we see now is just an assortment of propositions about technology, data, platforms, agility, users and so on that don’t really connect into the practicality of what governments and public bodies actually do in the real world." A devastating assessment of digital government.

Since diginomica launched we’ve tracked government digital transformation programs from around the world, from the UK to the US via Australia and Estonia. A common theme has been the need for a radical change in the way government purchases, deploys and manages technology.

But what if we’ve got it wrong? What if all the time and money and effort that’s gone into digital government transformation has been focused in the wrong direction? What, in other words, if the pursuit of transformation in its current form has been a waste of time?

That’s the bold thesis of a new working paper from Professor Vishanth Weerakkody and Paul Waller of Brunel University in London - Digital Government: overcoming the systemic failure of transformation. It’s one of the most strongly-worded and compellingly argued papers on the theme that I’ve read and its conclusions make for some uncomfortable reading.

Try this as a opening shot. When considering transformation programs, a major flaw is that:

All of the plans, studies, research, comparisons and so on, and even the very terminology that has been used, have been based on a commercial model for public administration that not only is inappropriate, but has led to a vast amount of confusion, wasted effort and ill-spent public money.


Many good things have happened, but two or three phases of trying to “make government digital” over the last 20 years — mostly reinventing the previous programmes with new labels — have not really taken us beyond information provision and a few online transactions. The logic has been that government equals services equals web sites — but none of that is true.

Indeed, there have been no new ideas for over a decade and what we see now is just an assortment of propositions about technology, data, platforms, agility, users and so on that don’t really connect into the practicality of what governments and public bodies actually do in the real world.


Service industry

Weerakkody and Waller find the idea of ‘government-as-a-service-industry’ problematic and unhelpful:

In relation to digital government, the dominant assumption has been that “government is a service industry”, with a private sector model in mind. This is dangerously misleading. In the case of the application of technology to the public sector, it has led to attempts to overlay the processes of newspapers, banks, and retailers on to public functions — the result is a model based on broadcasting information and simple transactions. Yes, some of that does apply to the public sector, but it isn’t what it is really about. Citizens are not customers.

They add:

The implicit but dominant “government-as-a service-industry” paradigm has led e-government (digital government, or whatever is the current term) down a blocked path. It is increasingly apparent that the end of that path was reached a few years ago – no new approaches have emerged recently to really deliver positive results sustainably. The solution does not lie in moving on to the next technological fashion, be that big data analytics, algorithmic regulation, platform government or whatever, without recognising the distinct context given by political and governmental institutions.

What is needed, say the academics, is a reversal of thinking around digital transformation. Instead of starting with the technology. transformation needs to begin with the political process of policy design:

The purpose of a government is to make, implement and administer policy decisions on behalf of the community for which it has responsibility, for example a nation or a city, on matters that affect the lives of that community as a whole. Such matters may, among many things, be rules of conduct, the spending of community funds on infrastructure or looking after people, or the rules for taxing people to raise those funds.

The reality today has been to start with the internet and focus on front-end web design:

Before the Internet no one would have set out to transform government and public administration by redesigning forms and guidance pamphlets. They would do that to make life easier for people, and save time in administration, but that's all: they wouldn't expect to alter anything else.

That is all that has happened with e-government and digital government: electronic forms and pamphlets. Once there were forms design and “Plain English” units in government departments; then web site teams and e-government units; now Digital Transformation teams: each doing, again and again, more complicated and expensive variations of the same thing: putting lipstick on pigs.

Public sector reform is about changing a set of policy instruments delivering the overarching policy goals, argue Weerakkody and Waller, but all the common techno-centric approaches miss this point:

Reviewing the policy instrument set in the light of the potential of digital technologies is likely to produce far more fundamental and effective results. A barrier to this is the challenge of how to bring into the policy design process, at any moment in time, current knowledge of what is technologically possible and relevant to the achievement of the policy goal through instrument choice and implementation.

My take

The pursuit of modernity for its own sake has characterized too many failed IT programs in government. In the UK, former Prime Minister Tony Blair committed to a health service electronic patient record scheme in less than an hour on the basis of the sex appeal of a hi-tech nirvana. The end result to the UK taxpayer over a decade later was a failed program and billions of pounds poured down the drain.

In the private sector, successful digital transformation starts with the wider business strategy and goals of the organization. Technology is there to enable the achievement of those goals. Organizations that start down a digital program because they can or, worse, because they feel they ought to, are doomed to fail.

While accepting Weerakkody and Waller’s point about the dangers of transposing a private sector model onto the public sector, I think that basic principle is the same. Public sector organizations need to know what policy outcomes are the objectives. That’s going to mean a new coalition of legislators, stakeholders, comms people, finance personnel, procurement staff and IT.  But that digital element can’t be allowed to be the main driver, but rather an enabler for wider policy design and execution.

If you’re in the public sector, it’s well worth taking a deeper dive into the Brunel working paper. Weerakkody and Waller have made it available here for consultation and comment.

Image credit - Freeimages.com

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