Lions led by donkeys: the 1918 Whitehall time-capsule

Last week, in describing the challenge of moving towards citizen-centric service delivery, Sir David Varney reminded his audience that the current structure of Whitehall dates back to 1918, when Lloyd George’s coalition government decided to organise the post World-War 1 public services in vertical silos, each with its own legislative powers. In order to protect against abuse the agencies were often forbidden to share information except under specific circumstances.

The minutes of the first of the EURIM “Transformational Government Dialogues are now available and help explain why the reform of public service delivery is so important, why it is so difficult and why technology enthusiasts are all too often part of the problem, not the solution,

Naomi Eisenstadt (who heads the Social Exclusion Task Force), Judy Walker (from Citizens Advice) and Councillor Kevin Wilson (from one of the most deprived wards in the country, accompanied by some of the local residents) gave examples of the scale and nature of problems of joining-up, including of individuals not only suffering but dying as a consequence. The challenge is to balance the efficiences and effectiveness that can be gained against the risk to civil liberties and privacy concerns.

Questioning by Lord Archy Kirkwood (a former chairman of the DWP Select Committee) led to a particularly interesting discussion over the merits and costs of face-to-face service, call centres and on-line self-help. Chris Mole MP (a research manager for BT Martlesham in a former life) picked up the thread and led it through to the importance of using any spare capacity freed up by transitioning the IT literate to web-based services to ensure that those in most need, often functionally illiterate, also received better service, tailored to their needs.

The Rt Hon Alun Michael MP (who as a DTI Minister brokered the formation of the IGF at the WSIS in Tunis) was tempted to describe Sir David Varney an optimist, things had always been good and bad, before he homed in on question of whether structures, systems, culture or indivdual attitudes were the main point of leverage. This led Sir David to describe the LEAN process to introduce more customer focus to HMRC. Malcolm Harbour MEP remembered LEAN from his days as in the Motor Industry and then raised the use of alternative technologies, including mobile.

Underlying the joining up of services with “one stop shops” and/or “benefits buses” are some difficult issues about identity management, to assure people that information held and verified by one agency will be used and trusted by others and not leaked or abused. Philip Dunne MP (fresh from a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee the previous day) welcomed the opportunity to discuss issues across the usual silos, but warned that technology would not solve some of the issues for many years, before pointing out that over half of HMRC forms still failed the SMOG (special measure of gobbledeygook) test.

Tim Boswell MP (currently Shadow Pensions Minister) raised concerns over information management and this led to a discussion over the addiitonal cost to the socially excluded if they could not benefit from the lower prices and discounts available on-line. The Earl of Erroll (himself an Information Security professional) then pointed at that most of the systems do actually work, before pointing out the risk that greater efficiency could lead to greater complexity and risk of failure.

Margaret Moran MP, chairman of EURIM then closed the session, which she had described as a “search for truth” in her opening remarks, after the witnesses had been given “one last wish”. The collated “one wish” could be summarised as “some-one at ground level, who knows and understands people, has a smile on their face and can help them fill in forms and access services.”

I have since had feedback from several of the MPs who took part, as well as the team from EURIM’s corporate members (including representatives from Accenture, Detica, EDS, Experiann, IBM, LogicaCMG, Nortel, SAS, Seimens, SOCITM and WS Atkins) who are organising the dialogues. The first session was a great success and the insights that come from cutting across boundaries, including juxtaposing witnesses from “the top” of the system with those in the front-line, including intermediaries and service recipients, were particularly valuable. Next week, on November 22nd, the programme will look at the even thornier issue of organisating sustainable delviery partnerships across public, private and voluntary sectors – not just across the public sector silo boundaries.

Sir David’s opening comments about the origins of current Whitehall structures in 1918 led me to subsequenty think about the contrast between the military structures and values of today and those at the end of the First and Second World Wars. And then to compare the visions of Lloyd George and of the Beveridge Report (1942), which even Mrs Thatcher felt unable to seriously challenge, with the aspirations and expectations of the UK public services of today. The opening paragraphs of the 2007 Service Transformation Agreement

say that the programme will not be complete in this Spending Review. How right the authors were.

But a great deal of avoidable human misery and suffering will continue if we do not make a good start. We need all those information systems professionals who are voters and taxpayers to help to change attitudes via the political parties of their choice as well as via their trade associations and professional bodies.

Otherwise General Sir Humphrey will continue to seek to manoeuvre his Minister into endorsing new programmes, borne out of the silo mentalities of 1918 – because losing “control” leaves the Department open to accusations of “allowing a post-code lottery”. And Sir Humphrey will only change when we have also “educated” the journalists, who he fears most, as to how they should identify those “really” responsible for failure and hold the “real” culprits to account. At that point I can see the pigs flying past my window. The time has come to call this entry to an end.