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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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