Of lipstick and pigs in government

The UK government is "in the vanguard of developing common IT architectures, and ahead of most in developing the IT core to enable secure transactions with citizens". Is this part of the ongoing debate about the future of the Government Digital Service (GDS), GOV.UK and the role of "Government as a Platform"?

No. It's from an international survey carried out in 2002, reflecting an earlier UK Government strategy of developing a cross-government infrastructure covering common services such as payments, authentication, transactions and secure messaging. This platform approach followed on from a series of web-based initiatives in the late 1990s that showcased how much better government services would be if they were both data-driven (rather than form driven) and focused on the users of public services rather than the providers.

The idea was two-pronged: deliver innovative changes to service design at the front-end of government to make existing services appear more joined-up (involving the application of generous amounts of lipstick) in order to buy time to enable the heavy lifting changes required at the back-end (the pig). Yet these back-end changes failed to happen. As John Zachman, the pioneer of enterprise architecture, has observed, "public sector enterprises tend to be of the extreme complex variety". As a result, instead of meaningful service transformation (refocusing organisations around completely redesigned data structures and work processes), government has largely used technology simply to automate previously manual processes.

These web-centric visions of the past two decades, with their repeated emphasis on how simple and elegant digitally-enabled public services could be, often gloss over the heavy lifting required in the middle and back tiers of government to make it happen. Worse, this 20-year-old, web-focused vision is showing its age, overlooking how data-driven services can work particularly in the age of the Internet of Things. This obsession with websites has become to digital government as paper forms were to analogue government.

Whatever the outcome of rumoured changes to GDS, the restructuring work initiated by Liam Maxwell, the Government CTO, must continue. Its focus is not the lipstick, but the less glamorous graft of tackling the "organisation of organisations" complexity of government in order to deliver service reform – driving interoperability at the data, technical, semantic and organisational levels. With its focus on mapping, open standards, data rationalisation, the use of SMEs, citizen control, disaggregation, cloud, and the revival of technical expertise within Whitehall it is quiet proof that the strategy is delivery.

As the past 20 or so years have shown however, such changes do not come quickly or easily – but at least they will come over the coming decade if this methodical, difficult but essential work can gather momentum. Given time and backing, this programme of optimisation and re-engineering (improving service design by rationalising data and processes) will lead to the long-awaited transformation of government.

As a new, beta GDS emerges phoenix-like from the alpha of old, it is this rebalance of focus on the pig rather than just the lipstick that will help meaningfully transform public services – finally enabling government to become a truly citizen-focused digital organisation from front to back.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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