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The UK civil service is broken and needs reform to deliver true digital government

Boris Johnson’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings, has attracted criticism for his plans to overhaul Whitehall culture, but one former government digital chief argues that he is absolutely right

Downing Street special adviser Dominic Cummings’ now-infamous “weirdos and misfits” blog post has caused predictable spasms across the UK civil service and particularly among the ranks of government digerati. It’s supposed to be unreasonable, impossible and ignorant. But Cummings is right.

Civil servants across the world are supposed to achieve a simple set of goals: deliver government services to the people who need them, and do it effectively. Anglosphere democracies have consistently failed to achieve these simple goals in recent years. So what has gone wrong and why?

The easiest and preferred career path for an ambitious civil servant is as a content-free “generalist”. As a result, government has become so deeply deskilled that it produces shallow leadership. The so-called “leaders” it produces flit between agencies with next to zero understanding of the policy questions or operational issues affecting the people they have come to lead. 

“What matter?” say most unelected bureaucrats; they’ll leave in a few years anyway. And in the time-honoured attempt to make some quick headway, they’ll defer their responsibilities to third-party consultants such as Deloitte, McKinsey or BCG to get average temperature readings on what their equally deskilled colleagues are doing elsewhere. All of this is done on the taxpayers’ dime, of course.

They can then launder their findings as the “best practice”, encouraging other agencies to emulate them, while the people they are meant to serve continue to wonder why nothing seems to change. These large consultancies with few successful government practitioners in such matters follow a simple yet lucrative business model – the high-status blind lead the ambitious blind.

Poor public services

For all the utopian talk to the contrary, very few citizens seek out “engagement” with government, particularly for complex services, such as those offered by, say, the Ministry of Justice. Such engagement only comes during times of stress and trauma. 

But why do government services seem so poorly designed, confusing and incomplete? Why are they often provided in facilities that make Soviet bureaus seem well designed and welcoming? What happened to the great digital revolution led by the Government Digital Service (GDS) that was going to make services “so good that people prefer to use them”?

Why do people instead choose to pay for expensive intermediaries, such as solicitors and independent financial advisers, to avoid the pain of interacting with government?

The last wave of reforms, led by GDS, imported “design thinking” with a heavy emphasis on qualitative research and “empathy” at the expense of quantitative analysis. These reforms effectively placed the user researcher as the proxy for the users themselves, while pushing delivery timelines further and further out in an unyielding desire to know everything before developing anything.

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Agile software development projects using armies of product managers, delivery managers, service designers, developers and WebOps engineers all started with a bang and ended with nothing save for a website, a notifications service, a procurement server, and some redesigned front ends of varying quality for the submission of online forms.

Superficial changes were stuck at the very front end of the services, to give the illusion of change while the actual processes that implement those services remained the same. The opportunities opened by machine learning, robotics, and even 1990s technologies, such as straight-through processing, were never even considered, as GDS adopted the mantra “digital is about people, not technology”.

At best, this was ignorant – more likely, it reveals a highly inwardly focused civil service. Digital teams effectively placed themselves as the focal point of the transformation, rather than the citizenry. In 2020, after hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent, we are no closer to producing “services so good that people prefer to use them” than we were back in 2015, and taxpayers are poorer for it.

Ironically, one of the main criticisms of Cummings’ memo, as mentioned in a blog post by digital government commentator Matt Jukes, states: “It fails to acknowledge just how messy the underlying data is.” The amount of government data tied up in spreadsheets and old legacy systems reveals how badly the digital revolution failed.

Outsourcing decision-making, implementation and risk

Government cannot outsource risk. Officials in the government may think their contract has cleverly made Accenture hold all the risk for their crappy implementation, but they are demonstrably wrong. Look at the UK’s and Australia’s My Health Record, led by the same person responsible for These systems aimed to support national health records. They failed thanks to the civil service not focusing on user needs, and relying on expensive third-party consultants and integrators who don’t hold any of the risk.

What is worse, they used a quasi-coercive approach to try to force taxpayers onto their platform with an opt-out-only method. Nobody blames the outsourcer for any of this – they blame the agency delivering the broken services.

This is comparable to the outsourcing mentality that infected business at the time of western decline starting in the 1990s. We stopped making things and corporations became little more than free-floating, generic-sounding logos with indistinguishable energy.

Here are four things the UK government must do to fix its broken civil service – similar principles apply in the US and Australia:

Civil service reform

The government must declare its intention to reform the civil service, root and branch, as part of the executive branch – it is not an unelected fourth branch of government.

Civil servants must be incentivised to do their jobs and successfully implement the democratically elected government’s agenda. There must be a tighter connection between democratically endorsed politics, policy and delivery. When that continuity is violated (which happens often), the offender should be sacked.

Better skills

Government must radically upskill its policy, delivery, data science, technology and design capabilities. The GDS/departmental digital teams made a limited attempt to do this, but they quickly hit their limits because of lack of vision, so compensated by focusing inwardly on the delivery team, rather than on delivery – as exemplified by blogs that increasingly focus on the team instead of the services being delivered.

No more outsourcing

Government must reverse the general trend of outsourcing decision-making. Ideally, it should purge the armies of well-paid generalists, who are incapable of making a single decision without first sending a cheque to McKinsey or Deloitte.

Open up recruitment

Throw open the doors of government recruitment to the world. Many of us are energised by the possibilities that Brexit opens. We want to do something important for the good of our nation and our neighbours. Draw on all our talents. Take full advantage of this historic moment.

Paul Shetler is co-founder of the government digital consultancy Accelerate HQ. Before that, he was recruited by former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to head up Australia’s Digital Transformation Office. He started working in government as chief digital officer at the UK’s Ministry of Justice and director at GDS.

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