Patryk Kosmider -

Better public services – a Beveridge for the 21st century

A new 'manifesto' from digital government experts lays out a path to delivering the internet-enabled state that's been promised for years but is yet to become a reality

In 1941, the founder of the modern welfare state William Beveridge asked: “How would one plan social insurance now if one had a clear field … without being hampered by vested interests of any kind?”

Today, we need to ask: “How would one plan a modern, internet-enabled state if one had a clear field … without being hampered by vested interests of any kind?”

And, most importantly, how can we transition successfully from our current state to that future state?

Public sector adoption of business-like concepts such as “customer”, “markets”, “innovation”, and “added value” illustrates a growing confusion about the line between public services and business. Such confusion often ignores the most essential reality, that few of us are able to take our “custom” elsewhere. For most of us, the public service provider – our local council, our children’s school or the NHS – is our only provider.

These inconsistent and contradictory approaches across the public sector raise important questions. How can we organise ourselves more productively as a society in the way that we design, shape and interact with our public services? In this digital age, in which activities are public employees most socially useful, and which activities are best left to the voluntary or private sectors?

A Victorian civil service

Digital innovation has been a game-changer for the way many commercial organisations modernise and organise. Yet we have seen little equivalent impact on our public services. A Victorian civil servant awakening from a lengthy slumber would find the way our public sector still works comfortably familiar – largely centralised, hierarchical, and organisation-centric.

The internet and modern technology has impacted much of our public sector in only the most superficial of ways. There has been a move from vellum to paper to on-screen forms without any real change in the way our public sector organisations achieve policy outcomes, or in the way they operate, design and deliver services. Technology has all too often been used simply to automate current ways of working instead of helping to redesign the system itself to deliver better outcomes.

As increasingly sophisticated consumers, we participate daily in the disruption of industries from banking to transport to entertainment. Yet as a nation we have been strangely reticent to apply the same disruptive principles to our public services.

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As a result, the 20th century structures of government are becoming blurred, confused, inconsistently applied, and progressively incapable of keeping pace with demands and expectations. Large scale public and private organisations – from the Department for Work and Pensions to Carillion – often struggle to meet the demands they face, and consequently fail to deliver the quality and timeliness of the outcomes citizens require and deserve.

Yet we lack a public consensus about what principles and structures should take their place, and how to frame these within the “public-versus-private” binary politics of the 21st century. Neither the artificial polarisation of “big state” or “privatisation” have provided viable answers.

The current failure to act meaningfully is having serious consequences. Without more radical action the situation will only worsen. We’re living longer as a nation and consuming more services. We also have falling real wages, growing inflation, low productivity, and an unclear outlook post-Brexit. And we need to overcome all of these things and still meet growing requirements for public services from a declining share of world GDP.

A new manifesto

Our Manifesto for better public services sets out an approach to modernisation intended to help deliver better and more sustainable public services. But we are sceptical that modern technology in itself can provide an easy solution. The poor and expensive track record of technology-led, command-and-control “change programmes” over many decades indicates otherwise – often only delivering “disaster faster”.

We need to learn much more from modern organisations. In particular, we need to learn how they have used data and technology to reduce or even eliminate costly bureaucratic overheads and pointlessly duplicated processes, functions and organisational structures that intrude between frontline workers and those they serve.

What if our public services became as flexible, streamlined and easy-to-use for citizens as Uber – but with higher wages and in public ownership? As efficient as Amazon’s operations, and as intuitive as Google – but with 100% of the money invested into ethical and trusted public services, instead of pocketed by shareholders and a small elite of businesses? And all while securing and protecting citizens’ personal data, rather than monetising and exploiting our personal information like the worst of the private sector?

In contrast, most government “digital reform” or so-called “digital transformation” has ducked these big questions, focusing instead on relatively minor improvements rather than fundamental redesign from policy to successful outcome. Such changes simply insert a thin veneer of technology over existing processes, services and analogue organisations.

The modernisation and upgrading of our public services will produce a very different public sector. The workings of the state will become more open and transparent, and more answerable to citizens, and could enable us to redirect significantly more resources into where they matter most – frontline public services. This is why we are calling for a more honest, if difficult, discussion about the necessity for modernising our public services, along with contributing ideas for policymakers to debate, consider and adopt.

Too much time and considerable expenditure over more than 20 years has already been lost on well-meaning but ultimately trivial tinkering and automation of the past. Reinventing our public services for the internet age will be a much more significant undertaking. It will be as big a challenge as when the UK created the welfare state. And it requires a similar act of political vision and courage.

The “Manifesto for Better Public Services” is being launched at the Institute for Government on 27 March 2018.

Jerry Fishenden is an independent technologist working with a range of clients. He has been CTO for Microsoft UK, the City of London financial regulator, the UK parliament and the National Health Service, and has been an advisor to a variety of government departments.

Mark Thompson is a senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, a key architect of the UK government’s open IT strategy, and strategy director at Methods Group.

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Great vision but will it be delivered by Whitehall, County Hall or Town Hall? The current mayor of Milton Keynes (arguably the most advanced in delivering a joined-up smart city, including an upgraded communications infrastructure nearly fit for 5G) was on of the panel of the first session of the EURIM "Transformational Government Dialogues"

Some of the London Boroughs have similar aspirations and the London Grid for Learning (which also carries the London PSN) could provide the necessary infrastructure.

In other parts of the UK we can see shared service delivery infrastructures enabling Local Government consortia achieve savings of 30 - 50% while improving the quality of community access by pooling delivery across authority and silo boundaries.

Some now have excellent on-line services, others are appalling, not even "a common shade of lipstick on the face of a herd of swine".   

As yet the silos of Whitehall have been part of the problem, mandating fragmentation for that which they fund. Will this report help change that - or will it merely help the refugees from GDS, who have moved to DCLG delay change by mounting a new attempt at centralisation and standardisation without being able to help join up the funding flows that get in the way.  

Given the track records of Mark and Jerry I expect an excellent and thoughtful report. The rest is politics. 

The performance and work output of the public sector would be much improved if senior Civil Servants gave up their habit of relying on presentation and spin to get across the Government’s message.

Most informed observers have always known that the political class has evolved innovative methods of communication which estranges its members from the voters they are supposed to represent.

In a well-functioning democracy, the Government has a moral duty to be open and honest with citizens about its policy positions.  However, in an age of media-driven Government, tensions have become acute between the governing elite’s need to get their message across to citizens, and the Civil Service’s obligation to compile factually-based Government pronouncements.

However, it is nigh on impossible to separate out the true facts from such policy pronouncements because they are framed in language which propagates half-truths and sometimes, downright lies – with the deliberate intention of deceiving.  Even more worryingly, press releases which are the primary source of information for the press and media about what Government is doing are crafted in such a way as to, in effect, say ‘look here, not there’ thereby focusing their attention exactly where Government wants them to, away from areas it would rather not defend in public.

One of the reasons for this modus operandi is that Government is preoccupied with presentation, manipulation of words and the dark art of spinning – instead of working on its programme of reform to deliver public services efficiently, to satisfy the wants, needs and expectations of the electorate.

The political imperative of needing to put a positive slant on everything the Government does or will do, irrespective of whether it is true or not, is the reason why spin has become the centrepiece of this Government’s communications strategy.  And because Government has got a monopoly on inside information (enabling it to maintain extremely tight control), it uses spin to divert attention away from the key issues that really matter to citizens and consequently, succeeds in suppressing alternative views and criticism from those on the outside, including Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

Conventional wisdom has it that Ministers shape high-level policy and select from policy options developed by special advisers and mandarins, whilst it is the job of senior Civil Servants to define lower-level policy detail underneath, so that it can be used by the rest of the Civil Service to implement the policy of the Government. However, the eagerness with which senior Civil Servants have complied with their political masters’ desire to see policy announcements framed around presentation and spin, at the expense of substance, would explain why their skills set has been narrowed down to this single, dark art.

It would also explain why the Civil Service has failed to deliver against promises made by the governing elite, in their election manifestos.  This failure has been brought about by the erosion and downgrading of traditional specialist disciplines in the Civil Service like technical, commercial and project management – skills which are absolutely essential to the delivery of public services in today’s world.

What’s more, this intense focus of attention on presentation alone has resulted in a massive gap opening up between the leadership and lower ranks of the Civil Service, who have to deal with the reality of delivering public services on the ground, on a day-to-day basis, which has in itself led to alienation and disaffection.