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The power of situational awareness for digital government

In the second 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 two 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.

This part two discusses 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.

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.

Developing sight in digital government

Government’s imprisonment in functional silos has resulted in an internal blindness which prevents it from undertaking the standardising activities that will be needed to adopt a modern, web-based operating model. The implications of this statement lead inescapably in one direction. The various service providers in government cannot harmonise the capabilities within their operating models while they are still comparing apples with pears. We must, therefore, have a place where government is empowered to talk to itself using the same language, to expose and see all that hidden duplication.

Happily, the means to achieve this common language already exists in the public domain in the form of the work of researcher Simon Wardley, whose “capability maps” offer just such a uniting framework. Wardley’s maps are particularly useful because they enable what he calls “situational awareness”. This refers to the way in which the discipline of placing one’s own capabilities alongside those of others, including the marketplace, builds a contextual understanding of which service components could be consumed from sources outside of the organisation - and whether these might be cheaper or better than internal ones.

Wardley map for HS2

In the above Wardley Map, by James Findlay, CIO at HS2, we can see there is more justification for retaining the internal capabilities towards the top left, because they are more citizen-facing, and thus higher in the value chain (top of Y axis) - they are also bespoke and therefore not available as commodities (left of X axis). In contrast, the further towards the bottom right (right of X axis) we get, and the lower down the value chain we are (bottom of Y axis), the more commoditised the activities – and hence the less excuse there is for not consuming these as standard, off-the-shelf products or utility services.

A consistent logic

The ”iron discipline” of generating these maps offers a consistent logic enabling us to identify which activities should remain within the organisation, and which, in contrast are the equivalent of knitting our own underwear - time-consuming, expensive, and probably not very good. These bits of our operating models should start heading out the door.

But there’s more. Intriguingly, it is possible to generate Wardley maps not only across our overall landscape of capabilities, such as that above, but also for specific service outcomes. The service outcome is of course the only part that adds value to the customer – and therefore the only bit that is sacrosanct. 

So an example of a service outcome for local government might be effective street trading licensing. To achieve this service outcome, we need to assemble a horizontal value chain of standard, generic building-block capabilities - assessment, case management, geographical zoning, GIS, database, e-signature, and so on. If designed properly, only the street trading front end needs to be bespoke; the rest are simply consumed, because they’re the same components underlying other service outcomes – maybe public entertainment, and other types of licensing, but also other services, too. The sequences of capabilities themselves can be copied - this underpins the excellent focus on design patterns at the Government Digital Service.

It doesn’t stop there. The real prize for our public services is that once people start to build situational awareness of where their own capabilities sit in the value chain, they inevitably start to wonder about those of their peers and the patterning of those capabilities - and where the opportunities to share and consume together might be for the future. In other words, building situational awareness enables government organisations finally to start speaking the same language, to see each other’s’ building blocks, and thus gain real relevance to one another.

A situationally aware public sector can behave organically for the first time

Although Wardley’s work applies to all organisations, public sector bodies have a special opportunity – indeed, perhaps a duty - to work together to expose, standardise, and consume all that hidden, redundant capability. Accordingly, we need not only to map the capabilities of our own organisation, but to ensure that everybody else maps their own building blocks in the same way – in constant dialogue with their neighbours.

In practice, this means each organisation identifying the service outcomes for which it is responsible, before tracking back to map the value chain of capabilities and data that sits behind each outcome.

Building situational awareness enables government organisations finally to start speaking the same language
Mark Thompson

The activity of saying, “these are the capabilities and data we need to assemble to produce this service outcome,” alongside everyone else will mean that everyone’s individual decisions about how they assemble a particular value chain will be conditional to some extent on their understanding of how other people are assembling theirs – or planning to assemble theirs in the future.

In this way, decisions taken at individual organisation level are actually the organic outcome of a constantly-evolving, pan-public sector operating model that we can all see. For the very first time, government will be able to combine individual responsibility with aggregate purchasing power. A capability’s positioning on the Wardley maps at any time results from the number of organisations consuming it, no more, no less.

The elegance and simplicity of this dynamic contrasts with the traditional, crystal-ball arrangement of a central procurement function trying to second-guess what thousands of situationally-blind organisations might want to buy in the future. More iterations such G-Cloud are better than less – but still polish an imperfect model.

Read more about digital government

Prime minister David Cameron announces legislation to join up IT across the emergency services, hailing the Government Digital Service (GDS) as a triumph

Mike Bracken, the outgoing director of the Government Digital Service, talked exclusively to Computer Weekly about his departure from Whitehall

The government has made £18.6bn year-on-year savings, with £1.7bn coming from digital efficiency and reforms

This was last published in October 2015

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