Don’t politicise digital government - public platforms belong to no-one

The future of digital government is of enormous importance to the UK, and it’s vital to stimulate more public interest and debate in both Labour’s and the Tories’ digital visions

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” – George Orwell, Animal Farm.

At last week’s Digital Leaders’ Conference 2013, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, Chi Onwurah, announced Labour’s forthcoming revisitation of its 2009 report on Digital Britain, an initiative that looks likely to form the backbone of Labour’s vision for digital government in time for the next election. 

Having carefully re-read Onwurah’s speech, there is much to celebrate, as well as some areas for sharp concern. The future direction of the “digital project” is of enormous importance to the UK, and it’s vital to stimulate more public interest and debate in both Labour’s (as well as the Tories’) digital visions.

So to Onwurah’s speech, the apparent foundation of Labour’s forthcoming digital vision.

There is much in the vision that is positive and strong. The clear focus on digital inclusion; on challenging the entrenched power of vertical silos via horizontal relationships; co-production of care; the need for government and industry to drive the positive power of technology for the benefit of the many; the desire for a federated (not centralised) approach to customer relationship management (ie, citizen data); the need to tackle the ever-present challenge of culture change; and the imperative to cut costs in the process, where appropriate. 

These are all highly desirable, much-needed outcomes, and, as Onwurah implies, many (if not all) of them were articulated in 2009’s Digital Britain report.

However, the important point is that one would be hard pressed to find a single outcome in Labour’s Digital Britain to which those in the Government Digital Service (GDS), or its digital leaders network, are not already deeply committed. Or, for that matter, all those currently working hard in the digital space across government departments, arm's length bodies, health, blue light, and other local services. This is for the simple reason that such outcomes are largely apolitical. 

We all agree

We all (including political neutrals like myself) agree on pretty much all of the aims articulated in Digital Britain. This is, however, the easy part. What has recently changed, though, is the means through which these ends can now be achieved. 

In the case of Labour, “New Public Management”, or NPM, sought to achieve these outcomes in a transparently different way to more modern digital approaches based on open architecture:

NPM vs open architecture

The above table is taken from an academic journal paper published last year, in which Jerry Fishenden and I presented the detailed argument that both Labour as well as the Tories had unwittingly presided over a 20-year period during which the state had imported progressive market terminology and concepts – KPIs, PPI, outsourcing, etc – into the public sector. 

This was done with the healthy aim of improving efficiency of public services, which, it was thought, would benefit from the incorporation of a bit of competition. Unfortunately, what actually happened was an unholy consolidation of interests between two interest blocs: senior public sector officials worked increasingly exclusively with a small group of counterparts in the private sector, in the “closed” manner of an oligopoly

If Chi Onwurah is correct in her claim that the Tories’ Rohan Silva – formerly an adviser to Number 10 – had cast this as a monster of Labour’s creation, then the Tories were probably wrong to do so; this consolidation of power at the top occurred during both parties’ watch, even if the results became increasingly manifest during the latter New Labour era via the increased public sector spend.


However, as a framework for Labour’s digital policy for 2015, Digital Britain now appears worryingly old-fashioned. Yes, the desired ends are all solid, as summarised above; it’s the means it proposes to achieve these outcomes that are outdated, as shown in the above table. 

Put simply, Digital Britain’s use of “big IT” to achieve joined-up government did not, and does not, challenge the vertical power blocs which continue to disenfranchise the citizen. 

This is emphatically not (New) Labour’s fault. To blame it on Labour would be like blaming the music industry of the late 1970s for not jumping straight to web-based distribution models instead of investing in compact disc technology, which would be unfair because the technology simply had not been invented yet – although, to be critical, it does undermine Onwurah’s claim that the 2009 Labour digital vision has never been superseded.

My concern, however, is that Onwurah, her adviser Mark Simmonds, and others (Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, for example) who develop or endorse digital policy on our behalf need to be very careful not to confuse ends on which we all agree, and which Labour outlined first – with means, which the above table shows are somewhat more complex, and which have only really emerged with the rise of new digital technologies.

Should we be surprised at the consolidation of public/private power that has occurred at the top of our public services? The Marxian approach adopted by George Orwell in Animal Farm is more relevant here than might first appear, in its focus on the linkages between power and architecture.

In Animal Farm, Orwell was pointing out that, left to its own devices, organised capital – in his analogy, the men – will evolve an architecture that funnels surplus resources away from labour, where power collects at the top of the pyramid. Marx’s point was that, unregulated, this process would eventually lead to revolution; it contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. 

The bitter irony in Orwell’s story of just such a revolution by the citizen-animals on the farm is that, if left unchecked, the power structures of organised labour – in his analogy, the pigs – are wont to behave in similarly self-interested ways, such that eventually it was “impossible to say which was which”. 

In Orwell’s parable, the needs of the citizen have arguably been failed by both left and right. The important question for today’s digital visionaries to ask is, why?

It’s simple – just look at who benefits. 

The architecture of public services

Just as in Animal Farm, we have evolved an architecture of public services in which the lowly animals – citizens – look on, bewildered, as a mutually advantageous public-private sector dyad appears to share the same interest in preserving its own byzantine scale and complexity. 

This is not so much a “vampire state” – that would be a cheap play for the Tories – or the creature of “rapacious capital” – ditto, Labour. Rather, it is a unique public-private sector apparatus that diverts surplus away from frontline services and into a quagmire of contractual obligation, back-office duplication, and managerialist reward that amounts to little more than rent-seeking. 

The “government as platform” vision shares many similarities with the likes of Google and Amazon, but differs emphatically from such models in that it does not transfer power away from the public domain

Mark Thompson

The beneficiaries of this dysfunctional architecture constitute a new class that includes the ribbon-snippers of the royalty, celebrity, and political stratum (large “prestige’ projects are especially good for careers); many outsourced service providers, technology suppliers, and professional services firms; as well as all those senior public servants whose working lives and career rewards are defined primarily via acceptance and participation in this circus. 

As in Orwell’s parable, the interests of those at the top of this dyad have become increasingly indistinguishable: in high-paid jobs, in influence, in the ability to substitute the politics of the desk for the face-to-face of citizen engagement, in capital extraction. 

By now you are probably wondering how digital offers a potential way out of this quagmire – and the answer lies in the link between power and architecture. 

The above mess has evolved gradually over many years, and is thus not really anybody’s party political football to kick about – indeed, to try to politicise it would be a disappointingly lightweight response from either party. 

Digital redesign

As Jerry Fishenden and I tried to show in our paper and in a recent, more series of articles in Computer Weekly, digital redesign of public services offers an opportunity to achieve a genuinely emancipatory transition in the organisation of our political economy that is almost Marxian in its historical narrative. 

Put simply, digitally informed redesign could see a gradual dismantling of this huge public-private parasite on our services, replacing it with standard ways of doing things that would enable government to start to look like a platform for various forms of citizen and state activity. Rather than baking-in and supporting expensive, bespoke practices, service providers would assemble highly local services around citizens using standard building blocks

To reassure Chi Onwurah and others who may rightly feel concerned about digital becoming a convenient mantra for shrinking the state, the “government as platform” vision shares many similarities with the likes of Google and Amazon, but differs emphatically from such models in that it does not transfer power away from the public domain. 

Although Google, for example, has been hugely successful in its ability to incentivise unprecedented innovation around its open platform, it has already shown depressing signs of private sector reversion to type – both over human rights and over the apparently difficult issue of paying its fair share of tax along with everyone else. 

In sharp contrast, when we talk of “platforms” we are thus not talking about a single piece of technology owned and run by a private sector organisation – this would be a terrible misunderstanding of the concept. Rather, the platforms are open standards, like electricity voltage – they are government saying, “We will increasingly standardise on the way in which we do certain things”, which in turn will trigger investment and innovation, reaping the benefits of Google’s platform-based model, while retaining ownership of the platform.

Open architecture

An open architecture is emancipatory in laying bare the public-private behemoth’s appropriation of surplus from all over our public services. Just as when the public settled on a 230v electricity standard, open standards constitute a similar platform – for us to compare different service offerings on an “apples with apples” basis, enabling us to become properly price and value sensitive. They mean that smaller organisations of all kinds can join in the ecosystem, whereas before, things were so complicated and large that they could be maintained only by complicated, large and expensive public-private organisations. 

An open architecture is capable of delivering the reality of digital inclusion, by cementing it within the organising logic – the very business model – of public services itself. This is, by the way, in contrast to the exteriority of some of the “point” exemplars that seem to have been the recent focus within the Government Digital Service, with mixed results. 

Achieving Digital Britain will not be easy, and will not be defined by agile, by cloud, by big data, or even by that wearied term, transformation

In open architecture, the state “owns” the platforms, in the form of gradually evolved open standards, and surplus is redirected towards the front line. As a result, and contrary to some visions of digital in which technology is used to support a withdrawal of face-to-face services, gradual convergence on open standards during the coming 20 years could actually increase funds available for face-to-face public services by many billions.

Truly Digital Britain is a Britain with a clear vision for emancipation from a muddled, dysfunctional and bankrupt public service architecture that is accepted by many as too complicated to resolve, even as we realise we can no longer afford to prop it up. 

Crucially however, Britain deserves a vision not just for the less controversial ends, but for the difficult, inherently controversial means for its realisation. Emancipation always involves a fundamental power shift, which we cannot expect to achieve without encountering significant resistance – these realities are often masked with euphemistic talk of “culture change”. 

Make no mistake though, achieving Digital Britain will not be easy, and will not be defined by agile, by cloud, by big data, or even by that wearied term, transformation – although these, and similar tropes, have undoubtedly become important.

It is defined by nothing less than a radical shift in resource allocation underpinned by an open organising logic.

Digital Britain is open

Above all, Digital Britain is open – a horizontal architecture of level opportunity, of minimised surplus extraction. Open is the connection between the power and the architecture – the organising principle where the ends meet the means. 

And it is here that the real challenge for each political party lies – the lazy dog-whistle categories of capital versus labour trivialise the magnitude of the historical shift offered by digital. 

I am no more interested in reading Labour’s claims about “the politicalisation of an ICT project management methodology” – an odd claim, given agile’s roots in 1970s Scandinavian trade unionism – than I am in the Tories’ claims about the technology blunders of the 2000s being an exclusively Labour creation. 

Such claims appear to be more about using digital to feather political positions than engage with the detail of what it will take to emancipate our public services. The UK is one of the most advanced digital societies in the world. If we work together, pooling our ideas in open debate, we stand a very real chance of effecting the sort of genuine, long-term structural recalibration of our public economy that will be needed if we are to meet the changing contours of 21st century citizens. 

In this aim, our longer-term interests, as Orwell keenly observed, may not always be best served by the polarities of our political masters. A plea, therefore, to our politicians: go easy on one another in those digital manifestos, and your voters in a future Digital Britain might thank you for it.

Mark Thompson (pictured above) is a senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, a key architect of the government’s open ICT strategy, and strategy director at consultancy Methods

Read more on IT for government and public sector