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Time to get mapping - how a blind government can develop sight

In the first of a three-part series, Mark Thompson outlines a digital vision to make government a more cohesive, integrated organisation

Government needs to respond much more aggressively than it has done so far to the shared plumbing of the web. To do that, it needs to be prepared to act socially - to share and consume. To do that it needs to standardise. And to standardise, it needs to see itself in the same way, everywhere. A simple, relatively cheap, and risk-averse initiative will enable business leaders across government to act locally, but to function as part of an organic whole for the first time.

This article is part one of a three-part series

This part one explains how government is flying blind - deeply invested in internal functions that each speak their own language, and are thus unintelligible to one another. The web increasingly demands a wholesale shift in operating model – away from managing functions, to assembling chains of standard capabilities to deliver service outcomes, but this is currently hard to achieve.

Part two discusses situational awareness, and a conceptual approach based on the work of researcher Simon Wardley that is capable of addressing this problem by underpinning the evolution of a common language across public services: enabling our blind government to develop sight. Crucially, although the approach has already been used internally within some public organisations, Wardley’s maps have the power to enable government to become situationally aware; to expose vast redundancy in capability right across the UK - and to ensure that individual decisions are socially and nationally, rather than merely organisationally, beneficial.

Part three argues that government should initiate as matter of priority a small programme to act on these insights, centred on a Capability Exchange - a centrally-stewarded portal on Gov.uk, openly available to public sector, citizens, and the market alike, where each government organisation uses the same methodology to map the service outcomes for which it is responsible, and the chain of enabling capabilities required for each.

Government is flying blind

During a Policy Exchange fringe event at the recent Conservative Party conference, former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude observed that there is no constitutional requirement for government departments - statutory responsibility rests with secretaries of state who are free, in theory, to deliver services using the most appropriate means. 

Put another way, there is no inevitability about vertically-organised departments - they are merely an entrenched convention. There is no reason why government should not run itself much more simply, efficiently and cheaply using a better operating model if it can – providing, of course, we end up with better services, easily available to those who need them.

It’s the services that count, not the departments. The trouble is, the interests of the departments are not always aligned with those of the citizens consuming their services. Digital operating models inevitably threaten traditional power structures, which can therefore be expected to resist them - think of the ongoing controversies around Uber or AirBnB.

We must stop knitting our own underwear

The good news is that the shared informational plumbing of the web now offers the prospect of an operating model that potentially realigns the interests of both state and citizens for the better. Digital operating models broker people’s ability to consume standard building blocks of business – which include information management, accountancy, logistics, payments, workflow, and so on - via a burgeoning market of affordable, easy-to-deploy, and flexible digital services, in ways that require very little “official” intervention. Examples include data storage - think Dropbox or AWS; payment platforms like PayPal or Google Wallet; and customer relationship management tools such as Salesforce or Dynamics Online. These can all be plugged into a business within hours.

Indeed, it’s possible today to build an entire organisation using chains of these standardised, cheap, modular capabilities. And - as was the case with the arrival of other forms of shared infrastructure such as electricity, railways, canals, roads, or radio bandwidth - the ability to consume standard stuff using shared plumbing always changes the economic balance in favour of operating models that standardise and consume, instead of building their own special versions. This can be illustrated by considering that most people would find it time-consuming, expensive and uncomfortable to knit their own underwear. Government should view building its own stuff in the same way - why would it want to do that, without a good reason?

However, it’s one thing for a new, web-native organisation to consume standard business building blocks cost-effectively from the internet, so it can focus better on its true purpose – but it’s quite another for government. 

It is true that many government activities – procuring nuclear warheads, visiting the elderly in their homes, frontline policing, collecting bins – don’t necessarily change much in response to the shared plumbing of the web. However, wherever information and data are involved – in fact, anywhere involving any sort of bureaucracy at all – the web is a game changer that requires a new model for government itself. 

This is because what could and should be standard, building-block capabilities for the state - licensing, payments, registration, council tax, and so on - consumed via the web, are currently done differently within each organisation. Worse still, they are usually hard-wired, or integrated, into each vertical structure. So, starting to do these things the same way as everyone else will completely disrupt the way services are delivered.

From vertical functions to horizontal capabilities

Although re-wiring organisations is always daunting, we need to think about how we can shift away from our current inward focus on providing vertical functions - customer services, casework, inspections, etc - each with its own underlying capabilities baked within its own “tower”, instead moving to an outward focus on service outcomes that consume chains of horizontal capabilities.

The opportunity is huge - reflecting Maude’s observation, we might reduce the number of agencies, slim down departments to become lean policy and governance hubs, and even integrate local services like health, social care and local government. Benefits would include a major rebalancing of front/back office ratios across the public sector, redistributing resources to essential services, and lowering total costs - saving perhaps £35bn a year. Not to mention slimming of the government estate through fewer agencies, managers/administrators, and buildings; progressive elimination of expensive outsourcing contracts with simpler service delivery; government bodies that are simpler to run; and improvements in service quality.

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For example, in a recent study carried out by Methods Digital with a government customer, we examined payments, licensing and ID-checking in local authorities in England which between them account for less than 1% of total council spending.

We calculated that moving away from legacy, bespoke models serving just these areas onto standardised capabilities could yield nearly £200m in this parliament. Local authorities essentially all deliver the same services - consuming common capabilities would transform service outcomes for citizens and slash costs.

Shifting resources away from bureaucracy

The arrival of the shared plumbing of the web means that we need to standardise our information-related activities around common capabilities - but this threatens existing operating models, and thus the survival in current form of the organisations that run them. If properly executed, such a transition could mean increasing, rather than decreasing, face-to-face public services, and related jobs; but there is no escaping the shift in resource away from bureaucracy and management - many of these roles will go over time.

In turn, these arguments hold a significant implication for the future direction of the UK’s digital government project. The first is that it’s all very well to say government should standardise on common capabilities wherever it can – but how can it possibly do this when it can’t see the wood for the trees? Government is blind. Nobody has visibility of anyone else’s capabilities, just those within their own silo – but worse, even if they could see other people’s capabilities, these would be expressed using a different language, and so would remain unintelligible and irrelevant to anyone else. 

The second implication is that being “blind”, internally unintelligible and thus irrelevant to itself, there is no way that government can assess the real effectiveness of the various things that it does, and reward those who innovate accordingly. Instead, it incentivises risk-aversion and preservation of traditional organisational structures – and can justify all this, because all that embarrassing, widespread redundant capability and waste remains hidden from the public.

Instead, the can of operating model change is kicked down the road for another generation to sort out, because it’s easier to cut our frontline public services to the bone instead.

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