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Intelligent public services, digital politics and the paradox of Brexit

The Brexiteers’ vision of direct democracy requires progressive engagement with, and consolidation of, public service models across the continent

On 28 June 2016, I participated in a panel at the Public Sector Show, where I was asked to offer thoughts on intelligent public services: what they were, and the issues involved in building them. I made a list of desirable attributes and then – after a quick crowdsource on Twitter – I added more.  

Here’s the list: Services should join up, organised around the needs of the citizen, rather than those of the bureaucrat; they need to focus clearly on service outcomes, not technology and other inputs; they should be evidence-based, anticipatory and grounded in robust data, while respecting privacy; and they should display a resolute focus on people, not things. 

Services should be open, auditable and transparent; flexible and responsive to feedback; and prioritise resources relentlessly towards caring for real people, not bureaucratic processes.

They should be available as much as possible, precisely configurable to the specific needs of people and democratically inclusive to the point of co-creation with citizens.

Finally, they should achieve these characteristics by making best use of the technology and services marketplace to minimise administrative and managerial overheads – thereby offering value for money. 

Collectively, these intelligent attributes describe digital business models. Amazon “knows” me, so it is able to proactively propose things I might like. It can offer me a choice of providers 24/7 and it enables me to rate them so other people can see what I think of their service. 

It can very quickly assemble value chains (electronic storefront, payment, logistics and feedback, for example) around me, which delivers something specific to my needs, in my home, at an approximate time of my choosing.

It does this relatively cheaply, and – judging by Amazon’s customer base – doing things this way is wildly popular with the public. 

There is absolutely no reason why a great many of our public services could not be run in the same way as Amazon’s.

Unfortunately, they’re not. Public service providers do not “know” me and cannot generally propose services dynamically configured to my needs.

I cannot choose between different service providers and there are limited availability times. I also cannot rate their service in any convincing sense, such as where my feedback has any meaningful effect on their behaviour.

The services themselves are generally rigid, vertical and configured around the convenience of bureaucracies, not people and place; and, by and large, they’re not cheap. 

Public services analogue rather than digital 

Public services are organised around an analogue, rather than digital, business model.

This isn’t their fault. Behaving like a riot of competing, rather than co-owned, organisations is a logical response to a pre-digital era that rewarded top-down, command-and-control structures and the empire-building behaviours that went with them – across both public and private sectors.

Regardless, the fact remains that our public services aren’t very intelligent. So is there anything we can we do about this situation? 

The answer is a resounding yes, but only if we think clearly.

Once we acknowledge that intelligent service models are digital service models, we can start to build a coherent strategy for transforming our unintelligent public services into intelligent ones. This can be done by looking at what underpins digital businesses and emulating crucial aspects of these within the public domain.

Digital businesses are intelligent because they are open and standardised and connect with all sorts of devices, platforms and other digital businesses over the internet. This allows them to build up information that helps them to become smarter.

Many digital businesses are actually inside-out organisations, composed of other digital businesses. They’re virtual structures, configuring and reconfiguring nimbly around the customer, and often controlled directly by customers themselves.

Digital businesses disregard and disrupt old certainties and managerial elites. They also challenge hierarchies, bureaucracy, entrenched interests and middlemen, and demand transparency and direct participation. They’re anti-establishment. 

New ways of organising 

If this sounds familiar, that’s because the desire to remove the sediment of administrative bureaucracy around so many of our institutions underlies much of the political rhetoric of the Brexiteers, as well as those who feel disenfranchised by traditional power structures in government that appear opaque and unaccountable to the citizen.

Such people see new ways of organising, underpinned by internet technology, emerge everywhere around them – from insurance to food delivery – and are frustrated at government and public services that continue to feel top down and disempowering. 

Such feelings are understandable, but they also point to a paradox. We want intelligent public services that learn, reconfigure, offer choice and accountability, as well as challenge bureaucracy and entrenched interests. 

However, achieving these requires international co-operation, not isolation; consolidation of demand, not balkanisation; opening up, not closing off; and international standardisation, rather than national idiosyncrasy. 

In other words, achievement of Brexiteers’ vision of direct democracy requires progressive engagement with – and consolidation of – public service models across the continent, rather than retreat from these.

Could an isolated UK have negotiated ODF standards with Microsoft? Go to the front of the queue to discuss Safe Harbor with the Americans? Attract major datacentre investment from Amazon Web Services? Could the UK build its own Google-style government ecosystem on its own? 

Digital politics 

The internet has ushered in an era of digital politics. This includes an expectation of web 2.0 modes of directly inclusive, flexible and accountable social and economic exchange, which are increasingly available elsewhere.

It also includes exasperation with a government that can’t keep up, and understandable frustrations, which, in Brexit, have arguably led us further from the solution. 

We must do something, but what? Many people believe it’s impossible to transform an analogue into a digital organisation, because change of this magnitude will be fought tooth and nail every step of the way by those who benefit by preserving the status quo. 

Education, for instance, saw a 33% increase in managers between 2003 and 2004 against a 10% increase in academics and 9% increase in students. An example of this would be Oxford University, which is reputed to spend £90m a year on admin.

If you think £90m buys a lot of professors, consider healthcare, with a well-documented explosion in managers of 82% against a 35% total increase in NHS staff between 1999 and 2009. By 2010, management and administration consumed £15.4bn, 14% of the entire health budget – that’s 427,000 junior doctors

Managers and administrators are the people who eventually lose in digital politics, which expose the costs associated with all this mushrooming overhead. Unsurprisingly, progressive politics for a digital age feels disruptive to the way things are at the moment.

Government must change from being corporate managers to stewards of digital democracy – brokers, not deliverers. Departments, agencies and local services must standardise, share and consume all those duplicated, opaque, unaccountable administrative activities that currently deprive so many citizens of proper public service, and a real say in their own care. 

As citizens seeking a better digital deal, we can play our part too. We should publish and compare front and back office ratios across government – naming and shaming those that show high rates of spend on office workers, rather than public servants. We should rate and compare satisfaction with public services across open fora.

Scrap gagging clauses 

We should demand a scrapping of “commercial in confidence” and other gagging clauses behind which government hides the true cost to citizens of analogue (siloed) behaviours.

We should treat departmental boundaries themselves with increasing disrespect, unless we are convinced these work for our benefit, rather than that of corporate administrators.

We should outlaw huge outsourcing contracts that lock in unaccountable, top-down analogue models for decades to come.

We should demand that politicians and senior mandarins pass a “digital business driving licence” certifying competence to take decisions on our behalf in a digital age; after all, we would expect such competence from our major corporates, so why not from those who govern us? 

From a digital democracy perspective, the UK may have just taken a major step in the wrong direction, by limiting our ability to consolidate our demand as European citizens to shake up public services: data, the internet and digital politics work in aggregate, not in our own back yard.

However, there are things that we can continue to do to save our front-line public services and help them to behave like global digital organisations. First and foremost, we all need to start by behaving more like global digital citizens ourselves, and asking the disruptive, difficult and political questions that this entails. 

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