Where is the long-term political vision for digital public services?

As digital starts to appear in manifesto discussions, this is our chance to demand a higher quality of vision from our political leaders

As in any relationship, there are signs the UK public sector’s dalliance with digital is moving from the first blushes of initial infatuation and settling down to making the relationship work; where past legacies and unresolved questions start to come to the fore.  

As digital starts to appear in manifesto discussions, this is our chance to demand a higher quality of vision from our leaders: a recognition that digitising public services is about much more than cloud, improved infrastructure, simplified processes, or rationalised apps – although these are all undoubtedly great and much-needed improvements.

Look instead at digital business models elsewhere – Spotify, Netflix, Skyscanner, Mechanical Turk, Amazon, Google, eBay, AirBnB, Twitter, Uber, the list could go on and on.

They are all fundamentally disruptive of existing ways of doing things.  They have replaced a logic based on “pipes” (in the words of Sangeet Choudary) with one based on platforms. 

So why are digital platforms a big deal for the public sector? The answer is that platforms allow people providing and consuming goods and services to interact directly with one another – without the need for mediation by a traditionally-plumbed bureaucracy. Put another way, they disintermediate many traditional functions of the state.

But we have been ignoring this. You want proof? Well, within the public sector, the immediate reaction to budget cuts has been to reduce and even close front-line services - the bits that everyone actually needs - rather than asking more fundamental questions about the whole pipe-based, analogue-designed behemoth itself - the bits that we no longer need. 

By “behemoth”, I mean all that bureaucracy, and some traditional suppliers that prop it all up – freezing all those clanking, wheezing pipes within multi-year, outsourced service deals and kicking the can even further down the road. 

Bringing about such an honest, open discussion is unlikely to be easy however: traditional public and private sector behemoths have mutual interests, and generally wield the power – and they can be expected to defend their pipes, not promote platforms

The implications of adopting truly digital business models across our public services are dynamite, for the reason that platform-based models render these mediators between supply and demand superfluous to requirements – just as they did in the case of all the disruptive companies listed above. 

Platforms expose the value that traditionally-organised mediators - both public and private - suck from public funds, and offer an opportunity for massive redirection of resources to the front line - doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, filling potholes, etc. 

Digital offers the stark implication that in the future “public service” could mean just that - money for frontline services, rather than for broker-administrators with job descriptions stemming from a long-gone era.

So what are the implications for those of us involved in digital initiatives? We all bear a heavy responsibility to engage properly with some of the implications of these questions, rather than just at the level of the technology itself.  These include:

Open standards or open source?

In many places, government seems to be reinterpreting digital as licence to replace all that legacy IT with a new public sector estate of open source IT (think upgrades, maintenance, etc), rather than exercising the architectural self-discipline to consume commodity technology wherever appropriate. ”Digital” does not equal “agile”, although this is undoubtedly the way it is starting to become interpreted in many Whitehall departments. Since when was government a technology company? What makes it believe it can out-innovate a global tech marketplace? Should it really compete with those UK SMEs that pay its taxes?

Platform-based architecture

Who is really engaging with the implications of platform-based architectures across the public sector in terms of real business model change and labour reassignment? How engaged – or literate – are our politicians in this area, and thus how well led are we in this respect? As the recent row between London taxi drivers and cab booking app Uber demonstrates, we need to think about the legislative safeguards that may or may not be required to protect citizens and service providers as bureaucracies and other protected interests start to be challenged - examples of these important safeguards include digital identity, access, minimum wage, and fair working conditions.


Do we really have the skills to migrate away from 50% of the UK government’s legacy infrastructure contracts by end 2015? Although dis-aggregating the vertical silos, and competing interests, that divide our state is absolutely necessary if the UK is to modernise, who will assume responsibility for service delivery failures that will inevitably arise as a result of directives from the centre? The Cabinet Office, or the service providers? Is the right governance in place?

Digital debate

How is the government framing the digital debate? In most places, the debate appears to be very technology-focused – inputs - rather than business change-focused - outcomes. To what extent are digital initiatives to date, such as the unquestionably excellent Carer’s Allowance, nonetheless skimming the surface of major business change? How transparently, and capably, is government auditing its own digital efforts? Who develops the metrics? Who holds the Government Digital Service (GDS) to account, for example?

Where is the programme for enabling real, lasting digital business change to our public services for the coming five, 10 or 15 years?

Removing duplication

How effective are digital initiatives that are conceived and executed at departmental, rather than national, scale? Take service integration and management (SIAM) initiatives, for example. We cannot remove margin from suppliers without offering them pan government volume in return - not, at least, if we want to keep them keen. And yet we are allowing many different models to proliferate, each different from the last. 

Are our departmental desktop, infrastructure, and service desk requirements really so different and special from one another? Before allocating budget for these and other “digital” initiatives, should we not ask pointedly about the extent of inter-departmental discussion about potential convergence and sharing that has taken place first of all? For local services, how can we combine local autonomy with convergence on open standards to remove all that massive duplication and redundancy that costs each of us so dearly?

Long-term vision

Where is the programme for enabling real, lasting digital business change to our public services for the coming five, 10 or 15 years? What, actually, is our vision for digital public services? I haven’t seen one to date. What should we build, and what should we consume? How can government make a market and become a “platform entrepreneur”? Our national share of global GDP is due to halve during the coming 20 years and our old age dependency ratio to rise from 28% to 50% during same period. If our public services - which already consume around 45% of GDP - are not similarly to decline, how much patience should we have with proposals that appear to tinker round the edges?

I could go on. What I hope to have shown in the above examples is that a maturing digital public sector needs to start asking some of the less comfortable, more open-ended questions, as well as the ones that return the answers we want. 

Looking around at our digital community, I sometimes wonder whether it is becoming a little bit “clubby” - whether a little more self-interrogation might be a good thing.

Mark Thompson (pictured above) 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.

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