Veteran listeners to the Radio 4 Today news programme will know that the government, whether Conservative or Labour, loves to commission a review and then consider the subsequent report. Platitudes are played out to the authors of the report and, so it feels, nothing further is done. This constant malaise has inflicted its cancerous torpor on the central government of this green and pleasant land.
Reading Palgrave Macmillan’s Digitizing Government, co-authored by CIO UK’s Jerry Fishenden, is at times a dispiriting experience, not because of any fault in the writing, structure or tone, but the litany of reports into failures that subsequently create a sequel of further failure.
This continuing situation was highlighted recently by the news that The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is looking to recruit a new CTO to manage a 40 year old mainframe system that is used by close to 100,000 users. Is it any wonder that unemployment is falling, but so too in productivity in the UK economy? Likewise, is it any wonder that the Universal Credit benefits system is mired in implementation failure? This title hears that an excessive number of data sets, all of different technology formats, have to be inter-connected because DWP has refused to change processes and as a result technologies. What Digitizing Government highlights is that, despite being constantly blamed, technology is not at fault, it is the culture of the civil service and its inability to innovate.
There have been glints of hope, despite being weighted heavily towards major non-UK systems integrators, the 13 Machines strategy at HMRC has rationalised and streamlined technology and processes. Self-assessment tax is a major improvement for example. But in a decade of reporting on Whitehall, my over-riding impression of the civil service, remains closely aligned to the vision depicted by my hero Charles Dickens and his Circumlocution Office. Out dated processes, multiple layers of reporting lines and excessive benefits has resulted in little creative thinking and entrepreneurship.
Authors Alan W Brown, Mark Thompson and our man in Whitehall Jerry Fishenden, all with real experience of delivering change to operations, technology and the analysis of academia, do though provide a charted route and inspirational, often challenging, ideas for how to innovate the UK’s ailing public services. This book, though sobering, is not depressing, rather it motivates you to give things a damn good shake and improve the lot of communities dependent on government services and those providing vital roles such as teaching, policing, emergency services and care.
The Government Digital Service, which counts government CTO Liam Maxwell amongst its number, is credited by the authors for its focus in the needs of the community (customer) first and foremost rather than the needs and roles of civil servants. Maxwell’s team is also praised for trying to join up government more succinctly, but again you can’t help but feel that the political parties prefer disjointed departments to shoehorn unpopular, but party coffer filling policy or white elephant projects through.
Throughout my reading of Digitizing Government I was constantly left with the feeling that local government has, in certain localities, eclipsed the mandarins of Whitehall. As its role has been successively diluted and funding restricted, some authorities have embraced the abilities of technology to reinvent a process and extract more from less. There is more to do, but Whitehall would do well to look at the agility enforced on and embraced by some beyond the M25.
Digitizing Government is essential reading to anyone working in or supplying the public sector. All the snakes on the board are signposted clearly, but so too are the ladders of opportunity. This book calls for a culture change in the civil service, and so does CIO UK. Available from the publishers here.