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Rebooting digital government to (finally) bring it into the 21st century

Nearly 30 years after the UK's first pan-government website, what has been achieved in digital government - and how do we make it better?

Ed Vaizey, a former UK government minister, commented in 2017 that he “would completely re-engineer government. I would abolish government departments, I would have government by task, you know, what do you want to achieve?” Knowingly or not, his remarks echo an earlier political ambition for a radical digital transformation of government.

A succession of government digital strategies has appeared over recent decades, largely variations on the 1996 classic original (Figure 1). But delivery has rarely matched their good intentions. The failure to modernise government and bring it into the 21st century has created a growing digital / policy divide, an existential gulf between governments’ capabilities and citizens’ needs and expectations.

Perpetual panic

The lack of a sustained, strategic political leadership of digital, data, and technology (DDaT) has led to a near-perpetual state of panic about all things digital - social media, artificial intelligence, adtech, the gig economy, hybrid warfare. Equally problematic are the politicians and officials beguiled by the spin and hype of the technology spivs, rushing to acclaim blockchain or the fourth industrial revolution as the New Magical Unicorn that will change the world.

A summary of the 1996 UK government principles
Figure 1: A summary of the 1996 UK government principles

With apologies to the late scientist and author Arthur C Clarke, to those who don’t understand technology, any sufficiently advanced marketing bullshit from snake oil merchants peddling their cryptocurrency, NFT, blockchain and Web3 potions is indistinguishable from magic.

The political failure to understand and exploit technology as a strategic asset is thrown into sharp contrast by comparison with authoritarian regimes.

Many have proved remarkably proficient at integrating it into their policies and plans - from surveillance and suppression of free speech, to disrupting and interfering in the affairs of other nations using everything from bot-driven false information to cyber attacks.

If democratic governments are to survive and prosper, they urgently need to develop a more effective and holistic approach to digital, spanning everything from their own internal modernisation to national infrastructure and geopolitics.

An overview of 'Fracture'
Figure 2: An overview of 'Fracture'

My new book, Fracture. The collision between technology and democracy—and how we fix it, explores the reasons behind this growing fracture and what governments can do to fix it (Figure 2).

Digital has become tactical not strategic

Digital technologies and practices provide the ability to access, analyse, and model information across governments’ policy silos; to engage communities and individuals in helping shape their own futures; to improve the evidence base; to redesign and optimise organisational structures; and to continuously inform policymaking.

But the political perception and application of DDaT in government is often entirely back to front. It’s typically used as a downstream tool to digitise a pre-existing ideological policy within existing organisational structures. Instead, it needs to be engaged at the conception of policy, to help with the exploration and discovery of a policy problem, to identify and acquire the data and evidence needed, and to explore and model alternative ideas directly with those affected.

Policy insights and ideas should influence digital design, and digital insights and possibilities should influence policy design. However, if digital continues to be relegated to the last step in a process that automates top-down, organisation-centric transactional services delivered onto a website, “digital transformation” will remain a hollow phrase, handed down like a bogus religious relic from one generation to the next.

Governments should have long ago moved to a model of public administration that gives citizens access to and control over their personal data
Jerry Fishenden

Part of the problem is that digital initiatives frequently reduce the citizen / state relationship to a transactional one between “customers / users” and “services”. The resulting focus on digitising point-to-point transactional interactions has displaced the much more important use of digital to transform government to better solve social and economic problems.

The “customer / user / service” mindset is in part a toxic hangover of new public management (NPM) - the neoliberal private sector concepts parachuted into the public sector during the 1980s. The ghost of NPM haunts and undermines the use of digital. It cements into place ineffective, siloed, bureaucratic and organisation-centric ways of thinking and working - the very opposite of what’s needed.

Just like NPM itself, digital programmes are in danger of making the public sector harder to redesign and integrate around citizens, cross-cutting policies, better policy outcomes, and improved administration. Left to rust in this diminished tactical role, digital transformation will never meet the “Vaizey test” of “government by task, you know, what do you want to achieve?”

Integrate policy and digital design

Improved integration of digital with policymaking is an important first step in helping governments move away from digitising the paper-based interactions, organisations, and processes of the past. Just imagine if a whole tranche of the “top 75 services” that are being moved to a “great” standard by the UK government were not simply redesigned (yet again) as point-to-point transactional services on Gov.uk but removed wherever possible.

Surely good design in 2023 isn’t still about making citizens engage endlessly with multiple separate transactions from multiple silo departments? How many of these 75 services could be reimagined around their original policy objectives to entirely remove the need for online forms?

The move from
Figure 3: The move from 'claiming' and 'applying' to automatically receiving benefits

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has sixteen services listed on the “top 75 services” due to become “great” by 2025. Twelve of these involve “claiming” or “applying” (Figure 3).

They’re paper-era forms presented online. Yet this isn’t 1994, when the UK government first started to move forms onto its pan-government website. Nearly 30 years later, we live in a world of real-time finance and near instantaneous Faster Payments and consumer-controlled Open Banking and two-hour windows between ordering and delivery.

Governments too should have long ago moved to a model of public administration that gives citizens access to and control over their personal data, automatically providing them with their benefits in an integrated and holistic way.

A pan-government policy and digital profession can help to deliver better policy outcomes
Figure 4: A pan-government policy and digital profession can help to deliver better policy outcomes

Policy and digital design will never succeed in delivering a digital transformation so long as they remain a sequential process. A new pan-government “Policy and DDaT” profession is needed to bring policy and digital expertise and culture together in unified teams (Figure 4).

Governments should work from the assumption that the ideal solution is almost never to present transactional, siloed, digitised transactions onto a website. Instead, they should work to deduplicate the data, processes, and organisational structures that lie behind the presentation tier of government.

Integrated teams can help to better engage with citizens and create more evidence-based, responsive policy and organisational designs, and exploit increasingly networked approaches to social and economic problem solving (Figure 5).

Moving from hierarchical to networked ways of working
Figure 5: Moving from hierarchical to networked ways of working

Improve capabilities

Politicians, policymakers, and officials alike need a more consistent, strategic, and informed understanding of digital, data, and technology to engage with the wholesale redesign of government.

To improve their capabilities, governments need to ditch the tactical and damaging “digital training” of the past.

They need to move to digital education programmes built around the meaningful and beneficial transformation of policymaking and policy outcomes, including the organisational structures and administrative processes needed for their delivery (Figure 6).

Moving from tactical training to strategic education
Figure 6: Moving from tactical training to strategic education

Implement a Citizens Data Act

The government also needs to deliver on its longstanding policy commitment to give citizens access to and control over their own personal data. It’s something first promised in 1996, and then recycled at various times since, including in 2013 in the Gov.uk Technology code of practice.

Citizens are the natural point of integration and control over their own data, across both public and private sectors (Figure 7).

A Citizens Data Act would enshrine citizens’ right to have instant online access to any data held about them, initially by public sector bodies, and then any organisation - similar in principle to what Open Banking has achieved in finance. The Act should be accompanied by effective regulation, and in particular more timely and effective enforcement action against those who misuse personal data.

Citizens will have access to and control over their own data
Figure 7: Citizens will have access to and control over their own data

Alongside the ability of citizens to access and control their own data, some data may have potential collective uses. If so, the associated systems must be designed and implemented using privacy enhancing technologies.

Doing so will enable, for example, health research to take place, but without releasing and losing control of citizens’ sensitive personal records. It will provide a balance between citizens’ fundamental democratic rights and wider societal interests - and do so without inserting a Soviet-like oversight group claiming they have some Hot Fuzz-like moral edict to override citizens’ rights for “the greater good”.

Digital government is nearly 30

Digital government in the UK will celebrate its 30th anniversary in November next year. The first pan-government website went live in 1994, aiming to bring together information from over 400 public sector organisations. The run-up to that anniversary seems like an ideal time to assess what government has achieved and where and how it can do better.

Fracture doesn’t claim to have all the answers - far from it. But it takes the opportunity to step back and review the landscape, understand what’s worked and what hasn’t, and map out the challenges ahead. Hopefully it can spark a much-needed debate about how digital transformation can get back on track.

Cover of the book: ‘Fracture. The collision between technology and democracy—and how we fix it’

Fracture. The collision between technology and democracy—and how we fix it is available internationally from Amazon. In the UK and USA, it will also be available to order from your favourite local bookshop.

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