Are digital public services finally set to become a reality?

It's 12 years since Tony Blair promised online public services. Can the Government Digital Service deliver on that promise at last?

In a high-profile speech on 11 September 2000, prime minister Tony Blair promised to provide all government services online by 2005. Two prime ministers and nearly 12 years later, we're still waiting.

In the intervening years there have been a multitude of job titles and departments imbued with the challenge first laid out by Blair. We've had e-envoys, heads of e-government, CIOs, we've even had a prime minister's delivery unit. But there is a real feeling around government IT circles that, finally, we may be making genuine progress.

The job title has changed again, to become HM government executive director of digital, as has the organisation – the Government Digital Service (GDS) – but can the new incumbent, Mike Bracken, deliver where others have mostly failed?

"The strategy is delivery, and delivery is the strategy," he told Computer Weekly, nearly a year after accepting the job and a little more than seven months after starting in one of the biggest challenges in Whitehall.

It's been a busy few months, yet during a period that in civil service time is barely long enough to leak a ministerial memo, delivery has certainly been the agenda.

An e-petitions service was launched, developed by "four people in a room for six weeks" according to Bracken, which could revolutionise the legislative process. The first transactional services are nearly ready to launch. The beta test version of a new pan-government website, (pictured), has been created and in a real first for government, opened up to the public for testing and feedback instead of hidden in a smoky Whitehall corridor. That's not to mention the fact that was developed using agile methodologies, with open source tools, running on Amazon's cloud services. That's not the e-government we've come to know and avoid.

Last week, another big step forward was achieved, with the launch of the Digital Leaders network, a cross-government group that aims to make public services "digital by default" and embed the digital message into every government department. GDS may be a central unit, with heavyweight backing from Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, but Bracken knows success cannot be achieved from an island.

"There shouldn’t need to be a me," he says.

"It should be a part of every department's DNA and how it works, and believe me there would be no one happier if I could go around and see every department and multiple agencies running in this way.

"The digital leaders are the first step to fixing the problems in many different places, and that’s where a lot of my efforts are focused."

By civil service standards, GDS is certainly different. A bright open plan office has multiple whiteboards and white walls, covered in Post-it notes and the graffiti of agile developers, working in ad hoc teams, having their daily scrums. There's a "success wall" and the Needotron – an in-house application to record and monitor business needs (with the code available to all as open source, of course). There's a culture of relentless and visible openness, with members of the 120-strong team regularly blogging about their work.

As Bracken points out, the environment is not that different from what you'd find in a medium-sized digital agency or agile development shop, and is based on his previous job as digital chief at The Guardian. But for Whitehall, it's almost unprecedented. And as such, for the luddites, not entirely to be trusted.

"There is scepticism and simple negativity, that’s human nature, you’re always going to get that," Bracken acknowledges.

"But the timing is crucial. There are a bunch of factors that all point towards a more positive uptake. First, the financial situation - we can’t continue spending the money on technology that we do. Second, the user situation - everything is driven by the user. As digital consumers, the services that we’re getting from government are not as good as the services that we’re getting in virtually every aspect of our digital lives."

So why has the government been unable to put Blair and his successors' digital promises into action so far?

"There is a school of thought that says we have got this the wrong way round in what we do and what was done before when we were not digital," says Bracken.

"I talked to a few [of my predecessors] and I said tell me, looking back, what was the big problem? And the big problem they all had in different ways was that they have to work purely in the land of policy. In the land of policy, I think one thing, you think another thing, and it’s your ability to influence and wield power that means your policy idea is better than my policy idea." 

Back to that old-school civil service mentality again. How does a digital thinker like Bracken go about changing the way that mandarins and policy wonks have worked for years?

"When we’re dealing in digital service provision, I don’t know what the future looks like, but we have millions of users who want better services. So that user experience should be driving our policy changes, not my opinion," says Bracken

User focus is at the heart of the changes that GDS is trying to enable.

Traditional government decision-making goes like this: Start with political strategy, from that derive policy, then legislation, them tell departments what they have to do. After all that, someone decides they need an IT system, and a big systems integrator is commissioned to develop it for a big fat fee. As history has repeatedly shown, all too often by the time that IT system is delivered several years later, it's out of date, over budget, and sometimes doesn't even work.

Can Bracken actually make a difference? He thinks so.

"Much of what I’ve been doing is removing blockades and obstacles and changing process inside Whitehall, but only doing that to enable stuff to happen outside," he says.

"When it comes to digital provision of public services we have to recognise that it's users first. We should be looking at delivery, and then asking what is the best way to deliver that, and checking that fits in with our policy. That’s a big change for government decisions, and most people don’t understand that. That’s the real existential pressure that the switch to digital brings." 

That means what some would call agile thinking – pilot things first, see what response you get, and develop policy around that. Given the institutional inertia of Whitehall, that is perhaps the biggest hurdle Bracken will have to overcome.

The backing of his boss, Cabinet Office minister and Whitehall bruiser Francis Maude, is going to be crucial in forcing through change and breaking down silos.

"Our job here with GDS is to start bringing bits of government together and saying, you probably don’t think you need each other, but you do need each other, because once you look at government digital services from a user point of view the correlation between your services is much higher than you may be thinking," says Bracken.

"We have great support from the minister. I expect many of those policies and many of the changes he has made are for the long-term - they have to be. I think those trends are unstoppable. Yes, politics is a fickle thing, but as a civil servant what I see is those things are underway."

The promise of digital by default is immense. Bracken has estimated a near-£1bn saving just from using digital services to eliminate the 150 million failed telephone transactions between citizens and government every year.

"Billions of pounds of efficiencies can come if we simply make the services that we have now work better," he says.

The critics are eager to point out that digital by default risks alienating millions of people for whom using the internet is not an everyday activity – people who are often the biggest recipients of public services. Bracken stresses that "digital by default" does not mean digital-only.

"I want lay to rest one of the fears people have, that it means you are going to try and get everything 100% digital. What we are going to do is think digitally by default. So we’re going to think of a service and then think, how should it work digitally first and foremost," he says.

"The idea that you are just going to take those [services and] be 100% digitally delivered is not viable. But the point is, we’ve not said what could be delivered digitally in those services. We need to do that."

One of the big tasks this year is defining what is possible by understanding where digital service delivery stands now, what measures of success to use, and what targets to achieve. This is where the Digital Leaders network will help.

"We will say what’s reasonable to expect, because we’re working too much without data. Currently, we are not taking those decisions on an evidence base, because we don’t have it," says Bracken.

He cites as an example state pension services, where barely 3-4% of users come through digital channels. Received wisdom says that because those users are older people, they don't like to use the web. But Bracken points out that over 50% of that age group use internet banking: "Does that mean we are going to get to 100% [take-up]? Probably not, but we can do a lot better than 3% or 4%." 

Bracken's mantra is all around the user and breaking down those sorts of assumptions and misperceptions. Don't start with what you as a Whitehall civil servant think, start with what your users think.

"In the government world it’s seen as hugely innovative just to give personalised services. The reason for that is we don’t think of the user, we really don’t. And so we’ve got to start thinking more about the users and less about the policy debate, and I think that’s happening," he says.

GDS has to maintain a difficult balance – between the institutional inertia that slows down change, and the impatience of those desperate for change to happen. But Bracken believes the latter force is on the rise.

"Culturally we cannot continue doing what we’re doing now. It is just not conceivable that we can spend millions of pounds on technology which isn’t providing services that people want to use," he says.

Key to that is breaking down the expectation that delivering IT means big expensive projects. When you have a service with a few million users, it rings warning bells among ministers who only see an even bigger number of pounds and a fear of failure.

For Bracken and GDS, that's the challenge – to convince people that starting small and building iteratively works; that it's OK to get it wrong if you only get small things wrong; that delivering systems for millions of public service users does not have to cost billions and take years.

"The risk profile of these things is different. You can see the headlines: 'Very small government pilot sort of goes wrong. Not much to see.' We will fail with some stuff, but that's OK, really," says Bracken.

"The [existing] risk profile of programme management and managing policy leads to these huge IT projects that increasingly users see as unworkable and not giving the service we want. That risk profile has to change," he says.

"The big number is the 50 or 60 million people who could be on a network of government services. That shouldn’t frighten people, it should excite people. That's our market - the power of a network is the biggest thing we have going for us."

There will be plenty of hurdles for GDS yet to jump, and plenty of opponents standing in their way wanting to retain the status quo. But there is a genuine sense of optimism and excitement creeping into government IT circles that sees the GDS way as the route to finally delivering the goal of a digital public sector. In an austerity crisis with costs to be cut, and with growing acceptance and demand for online services of all forms, could there ever be a better time to do so?

Put it this way: if it doesn't work this time, with this team, with this leadership, it possibly never will. And the only ones who will pay for that are us taxpayers.

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