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The need for a 'Capability Exchange' for digital government

In the last of a three-part series, Mark Thompson outlines a digital vision to make government a more cohesive, integrated organisation

Government needs to respond much more aggressively than it has done so far to the shared plumbing of the web. To do that, it needs to be prepared to act socially - to share and consume. To do that it needs to standardise. And to standardise, it needs to see itself in the same way, everywhere. A simple, relatively cheap, and risk-averse initiative will enable business leaders across government to act locally, but to function as part of an organic whole for the first time.

This article is part three of a three-part series

Part one explains how government is flying blind - deeply invested in internal functions that each speak their own language, and are thus unintelligible to one another. The web increasingly demands a wholesale shift in operating model – away from managing functions, to assembling chains of standard capabilities to deliver service outcomes, but this is currently hard to achieve.

Part two discusses situational awareness, and a conceptual approach based on the work of researcher Simon Wardley that is capable of addressing this problem by underpinning the evolution of a common language across public services: enabling our blind government to develop sight. Crucially, although the approach has already been used internally within some public organisations, Wardley’s maps have the power to enable government to become situationally aware; to expose vast redundancy in capability right across the UK - and to ensure that individual decisions are socially and nationally, rather than merely organisationally, beneficial.

This part three argues that government should initiate as matter of priority a small programme to act on these insights, centred on a Capability Exchange - a centrally-stewarded portal on Gov.uk, openly available to public sector, citizens, and the market alike, where each government organisation uses the same methodology to map the service outcomes for which it is responsible, and the chain of enabling capabilities required for each.

A constantly evolving, pan-government operating model

Government’s siloed structure renders it blind to the common capabilities and patterns of capabilities that could be shared right across the country. A mapping approach developed by researcher Simon Wardley addresses this problem by developing situational awarenesswhere everybody becomes aware of everyone else’s capability needs. Together with market availability, this approach helps prioritise which capabilities should remain bespoke, and which should be shared.

If all organisations adopted this approach, the result would be that decisions taken locally by individual organisations would be the organic outcome of a constantly-evolving, pan-public sector operating model that we can all see.

To enable this vital situational awareness within government – enabling government organisations to speak the same language, “see” one another, and behave individually, yet organically – we need a place where people can upload their maps, and see other people’s.

We all need a portal that enables drill-through views by particular capability - who’s using it, or planning to use it in the future – as well as by service outcome, showing what capabilities others are assembling to deliver a particular service; in other words, their capability maps.

This amounts to a centrally-stewarded “Capability Exchange” to facilitate the evolution of cheap, simple, low-risk, digital-first operating models. Public organisations would easily be able to identify others with similar capability patterns – and quickly spot those clusters of similar capabilities that could be consumed collaboratively, sparking conversations up and down the country.

Critically, a Capability Exchange would also allow the “bazaar” of departments, agencies and local authorities to govern themselves without the second-guessing of top-down, central control. It would become the enabling tool for self-organising behaviour right across government.

Exposing duplication across public services

While government will probably choose to prime the pump by building some of those components for which obviously strong demand emerges, the prioritisation of such components should surely emerge from the bazaar, which is closer to the end-user; not the centre. For those who agree that the need for public services to consume capabilities from shared web-based infrastructure should not become a licence for a public sector buildfest, the elegance of a Capability Exchange lies in its continual distinction between things that should be consumed externally as commodities, versus things that probably belong, and may need to be built, in government.

Public organisations will want to participate, because the maps encourage social behaviour. They expose duplication across public services, placing them under pressure to standardise their demand for capabilities lower down the value chain, and consume these as commodities.

Commodities are price-sensitive – so the more standardisation, the more commoditisation – and the greater accuracy with which government can price the true cost of its capability. In turn, this platform of common demand will generate an ecosystem of investment and innovation on the supply side (including the third sector), leading to services that we didn’t even realise we wanted.

Such a Capability Exchange should be openly accessible on Gov.uk to everybody – citizens and the market, as well as public sector – so they can innovate and invest in this emerging platform of demand, as well as hold service providers to account.  Over time of course, it would become a live open architecture for government, as well as a marketplace for procuring services, which responds dynamically to government behaviour - a living aggregate of all those individual decisions, with all the flexibility that this implies. 

It could be connected to what is currently the Digital Marketplace, leading to live, demand-led pricing for capabilities. Perhaps best of all, it would usher in a genuine focus on service outcomes, not organisational functions, and transparency about the way in which they are priced and delivered. Capability mapping within individual departments, while a good thing, will deliver a small fraction of the potentially enormous self-organising power of a national Exchange - government should not duck the challenge.

Supporting the mapping

If there’s one thing we have all learned on the digital journey thus far though, it is that we need to do much more to support our senior business leaders across the public sector as they engage with this type of thinking - a great many of them for the first time. Although government has been good at training more junior technologists, it has perhaps been less effective at communicating to our leaders the radical implications of the web on our public service operating models.

In similar vein, a Capability Exchange would be dead in the water without energetic support from a team of perhaps 25 to 30 mobile specialists who live and breathe capability mapping and open architecture, with a laser focus on the business, who would criss-cross the country helping business leaders to bootstrap their organisations into the Capability Exchange.

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Such support would include thinking about the principles and implications of shared web-based infrastructure as recounted here - identifying the service outcomes for which businesses are responsible, and the capabilities they need to deliver these; making and uploading capability maps; appraising commercial software tools; and improving buying power via collaborative consumption behaviours across government; looking at others’ operating models, and collaborating with them.

Creating digitally literate leaders in government

At a stroke, these activities would have the additional, major benefit of solving the senior education issue, by creating a digitally literate cadre of business leaders across the public sector who possess situational awareness - in other words, an understanding of how their own operating models are positioned, and constantly shifting, in the context of those of their peers across government. It matters less who does the supporting, than that government invests in its most senior people, learning-by-doing in this way, rather than via training courses, although some of these would probably be a good idea as well. 

We need to do much more to support senior business leaders across the public sector as they engage with this type of thinking
Mark Thompson

An important caveat: this is emphatically not about replacing public sector with private sector jobs. It is merely a recognition that jobs which are the equivalent of knitting ones’ own underwear - particularly commodity capabilities - are probably not serving the public, and should be replaced wherever possible by jobs that directly link to service outcomes. It is a shift in types of jobs, rather than the jobs themselves. The result could be the preservation of face-to-face public services for future generations.

There is much more that could be said about this digital operating model – about the joined-up service, the shift in power towards citizens and away from public and private sector corporates, the potential for engagement, innovation and inclusivity, the advantages of an always-on state, of consuming the latest infrastructure, as well as the enormous potential for cost savings – but others have written well about these things, so they do not bear repeating here.

Government needs to respond to the shared plumbing of the web. To do that it needs to be prepared to act socially: to share and consume. To do that it needs to standardise. To do that - it needs to start to see itself in the same way, everywhere. So come on, government – it’s low risk, and wouldn’t even cost much. Let’s equip government with the vision, the tools and the training to take decisions locally, but as a socially-conscious, organic whole. It’s about time we banished the blindness.

This was last published in October 2015

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A better role for GDS than feuding with those (from DEFRA to DWP) who have to deliver working services.
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