Let’s get digital on the electoral curriculum for all our politicians

More politicians need to understand how changing the business model of government through digital methods can help UK plc's bottom line

Curtis Carlson, the CEO of SRI International in Silicon Valley, once commented that, “In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.”

Thus it was that a panel of digital government experts and practitioners came together around the launch of the book Digitizing Government to debate a thorny digital paradox.

The panel comprised of shadow Cabinet Office minister for digital government Chi Onwurah; government CTO Liam Maxwell; director of digital & resources at Adur and Worthing Council, Paul Brewer; and Ministry of Justice CDO Paul Shetler; along with a group of leading innovators from the Government Digital Service, Whitehall departments and councils from across the public sector

Recalling Carlson’s comment, the paradox is how administrators “at the top” put in place the minimum shared understanding, infrastructure and platforms to enable citizens and users in turn to innovate and transform their own public services “bottom up” – a tension that Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude once termed “tight-loose”.

We all know that one thing characterises digital business models - be they Rightmove, Airbnb, Uber, Spotify, Tripadvisor, peer-to-peer lending platforms, or banking - they all disintermediate bureaucrats and administrators within old hierarchies, allowing people to innovate, provide, and consume services more directly and cheaply themselves than was the case before. 

We all know, and accept, that these digital business models have disrupted, and genuinely transformed, their industries – and their defining variable is the explicit use of shared web-based infrastructure to do things completely differently, ushering in changes that are usually resisted tooth and nail by the Old Guard - who are rarely missed afterwards.

Indeed, such is the disruption, and transformation, being wrought by the internet across almost every industry sector, we might expect the CEO and board of any large company to be able to offer their shareholders a succinct account of the likely impact of the web on their industry – as well as a clear explanation of their own strategy for harnessing this tremendous disruptive power to stay ahead of the game and avoid meltdown. Even BT appears to have recently got its act together, for heavens’ sake. As shareholders, we might judge the competence of our national executive team accordingly.

Analogue public sector

And so here is a simple test. We have just learned from chancellor George Osborne that our exhausted, analogue public sector must undergo a further 60% spending cuts during the next parliament, so the question is this: Is UK plc’s chief executive and board - or its shadow chief executive and board - able to offer us a competent, and comprehensive, account of their own plan for avoiding wholesale internet-age meltdown of a business model that has changed little since Haldane in 1918? I haven’t seen or heard one yet.

If, as generally accepted, web-based business models strip out bureaucrats and administrators so that money can be spent more wisely, consider the possible impact of this “digital feature” alone on a UK that spends over £18.1bn on back-office administration – a figure that I am sure excludes the billions spent on duplicated administration within outsourced service contracts. That’s a lot of avoided cuts to the front line – every year. 

The fact is, the board of UK plc’s engagement with digital appears little more developed than that of the music executives of the 1990s – whose web-based model was fancier websites to flog us all the same old CDs, when they should have been asking whether the model itself deserved to survive; history tells us what happened to them.

As Jeremy Heimans, Frederic Laloux, and others have pointed out, there is increasingly a new type of politics in play. Providers and recipients of services on the one side, versus top-down bureaucracies and administrative structures – which in the age of Amazon are no longer needed in their original form, but continue to suck money out of brokering transactions between us all. 

Digital stewardship

With competent digital stewardship, the happy news is that UK citizens could all enjoy many more doctors, teachers, nurses, and frontline services; instead, the hand-wringing in the House of Commons and town halls is all about cuts to “our” services, instead of radical redesign of “their” model. The UK electorate is being sold short, and we should administer that simple test to anyone claiming to be competent to lead government in an age of digital politics.

Revolutionising digital public service delivery

This extract from the book Digitizing Government by Alan W. Brown, Jerry Fishenden and Mark Thompson focuses on how the move to digital – built on open standards – is transforming the public sector's relationship with its citizens. Download the special report: 

Revolutionising digital public service delivery: A UK government perspective

The tantalising thing is that in the Tory Francis Maude and Labour’s Chi Onwurah, we have a politician on each side of the traditional divide who understands the scale of change that now faces our public sector.

In leading the creation of the Cabinet Office Efficiency and Reform Group followed by the Government Digital Service, Maude has gained enormous respect among many within the digital community for his grasp of the need for business model change, and his honesty in communicating the unpopular implications of this for UK public bureaucracy. 

In leading Labour’s Digital Review, Onwurah has resisted the easy win of latching purely onto the digital inclusion mantra, and has shown a commendable willingness to engage also with the more conceptually tricky, and less implicitly popular fundamentals of open standards, platforms, and service redesign. Inclusion without redesign is simply the government equivalent of trying to sell more CDs to people via more websites; good electoral fodder, but ultimately futile – and for those that understand this, dishonest.

Yes, Maude’s message on inclusion may not be quite inclusive enough; and yes, Onwurah might go further to acknowledging new, less statist forms of citizen-led agency that now inflect our dog-whistle, left-right political polarities. To borrow a phrase from digital guru Simon Wardley, it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, providing it catches mice. But these are minor grumbles. 

Our national problem is that each of these politicians appears to occupy a somewhat lonely competence within their respective “boards”. Britain would have a significantly higher chance of effecting a sustainable recovery if our other leaders showed anything approaching their differently-expressed, but undeniably committed, engagement and honesty in approaching the unglamorous, as well as the shinier, aspects of Digitizing Government. Let’s stick “business and the internet” on the electoral curriculum for all the others.

Mark Thompson (pictured) is a senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, a key architect of the government’s open IT strategy and strategy director at Methods Group. He is co-author of the book, Digitizing Government.

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