Delivering the Transformation of Government?

The Transformational Government agenda is the most ambitious attempt to change the way government works since Sir John Hoskyns tried to apply systems thinking to Whitehall in the first days of Mrs Thatcher’s government. Many commentators were therefore very sceptical as to its chances of success. The Service Transformation Agreement published as part of the support package for the Comprehensive Spending Review shows that the sceptics were both right and wrong. The task cannot be under-estimated but there now appears to be the necessary critical mass of support to enable success.

The Agreement begins by recognising that the changes necessary will not be complete within a single Spending Review period and that the aim is to establish “a sustainable culture”.

The departmental plans included as annexes show just how far some Departments have to go in understanding what is intended, let alone how it is to be achieved and measured. One is a masterpiece of unintentional (I assume) parody. But others indicate genuine understanding of what is needed and how it might be achieved over time.

The lead departments for each transformation area, DWP for citizen focussed services, HMRC for business focussed services, MoJ for helplines and Local Government for face-to-face services will have to operate across boundaries in a matrix of responsibilities with MoJ leading on information sharing policy and IPS on ID management policy.

Charles Handy’s “God” for matrix management was Hermes, the god of communications. His early students at London Business School, like me, had mixed views on the challenges it presented to traditional “command and control” organisations but it was certainly good for breaking open silos.

On November 8th Sir David Varney will be the lead “witness” for the EURIM Transformational Government Dialogues. These have been planned with the help of industry and officials to look at some of the areas that will present particular opportunities, alias challenges, to those seeking to organise and deliver better services (whether or not they make new and/or more imaginative use of ICT to do so).

Along one dimension these are:

– the improved delivery of socially inclusive services: given that those in most need are commonly those least likely to be reached via current generation on-line products and services, whether public or private.

– the organisation of genuine partnerships across and between central and local government departments and agencies, voluntary/community organisations and the private sector, as opposed to dominant players coercing others to adopt their patterns of working

– the means of ensuring that consultations involve those most affected, (e.g service recipients and delivery intermediaries) and that performance monitoring and reporting reflect their experience of delivery and priorities.

Along another dimension, they are:

– the role of the various parts of the public sector, not just central government, in bringing about genuine transformation

– performance and innovation management, including objective setting and performance management

– change management, including the availablity and continuity of the necessary skills

The term “dialogues” has been deliberately chosen because we are at the start of a journey towards different ways of organising policy formation and service delivery, not just the “better” use of technology. As such we need input from articulate systems professionals interested in helping users, in this case politicians, to understand how to bring about sustainable change. And sustainable means both cost-effective to the taxpayer and the commercial suppliers and delivery partners involved.