by Jerry Fishenden

Digitizing Government – A call to arms to fix broken services

Dec 01, 20143 mins
GovernmentIT Leadership

Digitizing Government: Understanding and Implementing New Business Modelshas just been published, the book I’ve co-authored with Alan Brown and Mark Thompson. We finished it early this year, and it’s been “in the works” at the publishers until now. That delay has been frustrating at times in the fast-moving digital world, although there’s also something rather endearing about traditional publishing still operating in such a timeless way.

It may seem contradictory to write a hardback book about such a fluid topic, but we wanted to find a way of sharing our practical experiences more effectively than can ever be possible through one-to-one engagements, blogs or tweets. Focusing on a practical “why”, “what” and “how” book seemed a good way of examining the major elements of digital transformation in large-scale organisations – and encouraging debate about government in particular.

Our digital age raises fundamental questions about the role of government that few seem to be asking – and even fewer answering. One notable exception is entrepreneur Tim O’Reilly. He sets out a radical view of government, one where it becomes an open platform that allows people inside and outside of government to innovate. A form of government where “outcomes aren’t specified beforehand, but instead evolve through interactions between government and its citizens, as a service provider enabling its user community”.

The true opportunity of “digital” lies in its promise of a fundamental reshaping and improvement of our public services, not in the polishing of government websites with their online replicants of existing paper-based transactions – broken services delivered on a computer or smartphone screen. After all, we’ve been doing that, repeatedly, for the past 20 years. The move to digital requires the redesign of public services, clustering them around the needs of citizens, businesses and public employees alike – regardless of how disruptive and threatening that will be to the status quo.

I don’t believe that responding to this opportunity is something that governments can choose or not choose to do: governments have to respond if our public services are to avoid a painful and debilitating existential crisis. Sooner or later we’ll hit the limits of protecting our frontline public services by making ever more “efficiency savings” to the current machinery of government. To ensure resources flow where they need to – the frontline rather than their administration – it’s essential we adopt the improved economic and service models made possible by technology. It’s time to redesign the structure, roles, functions, processes and organisation of government itself.

Understanding how to take advantage of this opportunity – and how to nurture, cultivate and grow a digital-era government – is what our book is all about. I won’t make any claims about it being perfect or having all the answers – of course not: it’s more of a call to arms, an attempt at a moment in time to open up and broaden the debate about the intersection of technology and our public services. This is why what we need isn’t yet more separate digital manifestos – but a pervasive digital culture flowering at the very heart of government.