Targets drive wrong behaviour: People not Systems

One of the “joys” of the on-line world is that you cannot be sick in peace. Having worked for months on the programme I was most annoyed to miss the first of the EURIM Transformational Dialogues, because I was laid low with a truly vicious non-electronic virus. However, the world now comes to my sick bed and I have received five different accounts of what happened – as well as the “official” summary. What is certain is that it was a great success: whether success is counted by the number of MPs participating or what they and the industry partners and civil services “observers” helping this exercise learned. The common message is “that change can occur when you can get structure, systems and culture working together” but all too often a mixture of fear and targets prevents public servants from providing joined-up service to those in most need.


The press release is now on the EURIM website and a number of simple messages come through with stark clarity:

– It costs more, in cash as well as in human misery when, for example, a child with severe disabiliities has to share her emotionally traumatic personal history, time and again as she visits different therapists and professionals, housed in different silos.

– Those who are socially excluded are wary of public sector systems and how, and with whom, their personal information will be shared.

– The system works best when a some-one “with a smile on their face” acts on their own initiative and goes beyond their remit, for example a health-care worker calling the Gas company to get something fixed.

In the notes taken by those who attended I also found some splendid terminology including the SMOG, “Special measure of gobbledeygook”, factor for departmental guidance manuals.

There was a clear recognition of the problems that have to be addressed: “the more you wish share identity and information between agencies the more you have to validate the exchanges (accuracy, authorisation etc.) … we need to have an identity management framework so that people can rest assured.”

There was a desire to make more imaginative use of the technology to contact people over the media that they were familiar with and to which they had easy access, e.g. mobile phone in preference to screen and keyboard. The problems of broadband access, especially in rural areas, were also raised.

One MP who serves on the Public Accounts Committee summed up the value of the session when he said it was “very rare and refreshing to have this type of discussion that crosses across agencies …. usually this type of discussion is per agency”. His words encapsulated both the problem and the reason for the number of MPs (well beyond the half dozen enthusiasts listed in Richard Sarson’s recent Guardian article “MPs struggle to widen their technology horizons”) supporting this exercise.

The next dialogue, on 22nd November will focus on the using of charities and other agencies to help deliver services in a “mixed economy”.

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I congratulate EURIM for involving MPs in the Dialogues. What's more, it has attracted not just the "usual suspects" among the MPs (Margaret Moran, Alun Michael etc), but has enticed out of the woodwork other MPs, not hitherto known as IT champions. Some of them (no names no packdrill) are "closet geeks": MPs who have good IT credentials, but who have hitherto been reluctant to advertise them, because to be labelled a geek in Parliament is considered by many in the Westminster village to be a fast road to political oblivion. We need to see more of these looking at policies from an IT perspective. Particularly the IT literate members of the 2005 intake, who seem reluctant to deploy their expertise.

Transformational Government needs all the expertise it can get from Parliamentarians, as well as IT people in the Civil Service.

One thing I hope the Dialogues investigate is how much Permanent Secretaries in the individual Ministries understand and are committed to the project. I have tracked e-government since the original government.direct initiative in 1996, and have always sensed that Sir Humphrey has always been hostile, and has carried on an effective spoiling campaign for 11 years.

In 2000, I wrote

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2000/sep/14/egovernment.onlinesupplement

on this topic, and got a furious response from the first e-envoy, claiming that all the Permanent secretaries were on board, and that my image of Sir Humphrey was long gone. I suspect that things have not changed much in the intervening seven years. I would be interested to hear that I am wrong, but I don't have any evidence to indicate that I am.

If I am right, Transformational Government will remain in trouble. I hope the Dialogues will flush Sir Humphrey out.

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