I have just read that the digitisation of government needs a major
The digitisation or the transformation?
It is over twenty
years since Nobel Prize winner Arno Penzias (then running Bell Labs)
told PITCOM than computerisation never made anyone redundant. It was the
organisational changes that were enabled by computerisation that made
whole functions and their departments, redundant. So what have we
actually learned since LEO 1 automated the production control pf Lyons
Bakery and LEO2 automated the Army Pay roll? If this article is
anything to go by .... not a lot.
Last year I promised, (while
blogging on the problems with rural social inclusion as exemplified by
the problems with using digital by default to identify farmers
) to comment on the report of the exercise
commissioned to help the Labour Party Digital Government review
have been taken to task before by Chi Onwurah
MP for not declaring my
political allegiances. I therefore remind readers that whiIe I am Vice
Chairman (Policy Studies) for the Conservative Technology Forum, I am also a
levy paying, albeit now retired, member of Unite and of the Co-op. The views in this blog are my own. They reflect neither left, right nor centre but that area
where old (non-Marxist) Labour meets tribal (open, but not necessarily "free", market) Tory, round
the bike sheds at the back.
particularly welcome the call for those looking at "Digital Government" to focus on social inclusion and
ethical standards rather than simple cost saving, although I would have
welcomed rather more on how to measure performance and to hold government
to account with regard to both. I would also have preferred more focus
on the objectives than the technology, although I was personally
interested much of the latter. I fear, however, that too many of
those responsible for public sector IT systems, particularly those
over-zealously outsourced by the last Labour government (such as under
the National Plan for NHS IT and the many botched hospital PFIs) have
mindsets akin to those who run the US Bureau of Indian Affairs
was therefore delighted to see the recent admission from Andy Burnham that
Labour had taken the privatisation of the NHS too far. Perhaps he already knew that Circle was planning to withdraw
from the running of Hinchinbrooke Hospital
. I look forward to
seeing further evidence that all main parties recognise that the outsourcing and
offshoring of critical public sector functions, including the security
of our personal information, has passed its zenith and that the time has come
to rebuild the in-house systems skills of the public sector. That
rebuilding needs to include the skills for end-users, not just IT
"experts", to use open source, interoperable and agile methodologies to
support the integration and transformation of service delivery, under
democratic control and open accountability.
Recommendation 31 of the Digital Government Review
, five days
training for all civil staff during the next parliament to become
digital champions, is far too modest and has far too low a priority. All
civil servants should have the equivalent (including both off-the-job
workshops and on-the-job distance learning) of at least ten days a year
to help them do their jobs better. The goal should be to involve
end-users and their managers in driving incremental change within
inter-operability frameworks using IT "professionals", "systems experts"
and outside "consultants" in support roles only.
That has been the
ostensible aim of those developing what we now call "agile"
methodologies for over forty years. The time has come to take them at
their word and adopt the necessary disciplines - while recognising why
this is so hard in practice
I strongly agree with the authors of the review that the goal should be better service for
those in most need (my personal rephrasing of their social inclusion
goals). Given the state of public finances (including the overhang of
bloated PFIs and other rigidly wasteful outsourcing contracts) that will have
almost certainly have to be achieved by incremental change, on positive
cash flow using software as a service over shared network and cloud
services to cut new system costs by 30% (and more) above the savings on
those they replace. We can then argue whether the additional savings
should be used to improve services to the growing number of elderly
(including me!) or to cut taxes.
I found it difficult to work out
which of the other 34 recommendations were there to help achieve objectives
and which were there to address assumed constraints. Many appear to very technical and capable of interpretation in a variety of ways, not all of them good professional practice. I did the programme
management module on MSc06 (1971 - 3) at London Business School and subsequently
ran the only one of Tony Benn
's DTI tripartite industry strategy
programmes to achieve its objectives (The Water Industry Computing Development Plan). I learned that if a programme has
more than six priorities, it has none. More-over only the top three
really matter. Most supposed objectives, such as health and safety,
equal opportunities and even timescales and budgets, are constraints, not objectives. My own experience has been that the biggest constraints
are the skills and time available, not the funding. I have seen too many expensive fiascos resulting from politicians throwing consultants and contractors with the wrong experience, motivation and
management at a problem because they think that mortgaging the future will provide a short cut to success. I would love to see a bipartisan agreement
to follow good professional programme management practice. But pigs
Is the objective of Digital Government to deliver better and more
socially inclusive automated services? Or is it to deliver better
services, digital or otherwise, making use of technology to help human
beings overcome organisational problems and resource constraints in addressing
the needs of those in most need of help, support and/or treatment?
I suspect that
some of the authors of the report did not recognise the tension between
the two approaches. Others probably did, but could not agree how to
reconcile the differences. I sympathise. Politicians, advisors and
officials are subject to massive lobbying from armies of consultant
and suppliers telling them that technology and outsourcing are the "answer" and the
implementation should be contracted to them. Those currently at the top
of most major suppliers to the public sector got there by winning such contracts, rather than
working on their subsequent delivery. They now have grave difficulty in
adjusting to the reality of a world where the public sector is not only
broke but mortgaged to the hilt (PFIs and outsourcing deals).
The only realistic way forward is incremental change, using "agile"
methodologies supported by low cost mobile technologies accessing
cloud-based services. But this has to be funded by
cannibalising existing contracts to save 30% and more on current
outsourcing costs: hence the desire of major suppliers, and their
lobbyists, to delay change while they shrink their UK sales and support
teams and adjust to a new world. Hence also the enthusiasm for complex
studies to buy time.
I therefore applaud the focus on
social inclusion, but would simplify it down to a requirement that public
service delivery systems (whether digital or not) should be designed for access by those in most need,
using carers they trust.
No large scale roll-out should be committed
unless and until the specification has been successfully tested on the
target audience. The Secretary of State for DWP's insistence on this
basic principle is what lies behind the delays with Universal Credit. This appoach was alien to officials and suppliers, let alone the big management
consultancies whose experts always know best. They insisted on cutting
code and installing equipment under their existing, extended, contracts
before they documented and tested the "pathfinders". In other words, they ignored
the reasons for Australia's successful use of the Oracle methodology they
were supposedly copying. Hence the core reason for £hundreds of millions,
and more importantly, several years of unnecessary human suffering and
In the small print of the 2012 budget the Chancellor
mandated that no new system should go live after 2014 unless "the
responsible minister can demonstrate that they can themselves use the
. Thus George Eustace
personally involved with the three week "agile" cycle to belatedly sort out the
systems of the Rural Payment Agency. Similarly the Universal Credit
systems cannot go live unless ministers can use them.
launch of the new Digital Accessibility Alliance
be followed by an extension of the policy, preferably in the
pre-election budget with all-party support, to mandate the testing of
all new systems with members of the target audience, not just the
minister, before roll out is contracted.
I note the plans to
budget large sums for teaching the "digitally excluded" how to use
current technologies but regard this as less effective use of limited
government funds than training civil servants to take public service
delivery back in-house and to work with local authorities and the
voluntary sector to run "joined up people systems" that meet the needs
of those most dependent on them. Almost PITCOM's first activity was an
exhibition of computer-based aids for the disabled, in the Upper
Waiting Room. It was opened by Sir George Young
when he was a
junior Health Minister.
Over 30 years on and we are still failing to
make effective use of the technology to help those who could and should
benefit most. Barnados and the Salvation Army are well ahead of the
Government Data Service in the sophistication of their use of IT to help
them serve and protect (their levels of delivered security also put
Government to shame) those in most need. Perhaps government should pay
leading charities some of what it pays to the big consultancies for
advice on how to better use IT to meet the needs of those in most need.
leads me on to the "ethical" dimension, which Labour would entrust to
The Charities are able to do such more at lower cost and
more securely by enlisting the hearts and minds of those who work with
and for them. Meanwhile no-one, other than a handful of Big data
enthusiasts, trusts most Whitehall department further than they can be
. That is not because of the lack of probity of individual civil
servants but because of the constraints within which they operate,
including rotation to a new role as soon as they begin to gain genuine
experience and build trust.
So how should we handle the issues of trust with the delivery of public services?
Abnd here I come why I agree so strongly with the ethical objectives behind the review ....