Digital transformation through policy design

Or how to end the systemic failure of transformation and 20 years of putting ‘lipstick on a pig’

brunel_logoThere needs to be a complete turnaround in the way governments think about how digital technologies can change the public sector, claims a draft research report from Brunel University.

Digital Government: Overcoming the Systemic Failure of Transformation,’ finds that even the most recent approaches still come from the perspective of technology, not the core policy-making functions of government.

It puts forward the interesting argument that "the only coherent way to achieve any real impact is to embed the potential of technology in the instruments that make governments’ policies real". Policy instruments are the tools that governments choose from to intervene in the economy, society and environment to make change, such as licences, information campaigns and more tangible things like public services and infrastructure.

“Almost every government plan, international benchmark and academic study has started from the viewpoint of a website or app,” said Vishanth Weerakkody, professor of digital governance at Brunel.

“Government strategies over the last 20 years have only had cosmetic effects and the result has been like putting lipstick on a pig. What certainly has not happened is the much hyped ‘digital transformation of government’.”

Right conversations

The report points out that much has been said about the need for civil and public servants to acquire digital skills. But it argues that it is more important for "digital expert colleagues to better understand the specialised and often complex policy development, legislative and administrative world within which they are attempting to enable transformation. Then they can have the right conversations with the politicians, policy designers, lawyers and administrators that own the challenges."

This, it adds, should not be a conversation just about websites and associated technical concepts, but a whole range of possibilities related to technology and data, with a good grasp of the political, social and behavioural implications attached to them. "So we aren’t talking about hiring in commercial website developers here."

All the common techno-centric approaches, it states, "miss the point that to transform public administration means changing the set of policy instruments delivering the overarching policy goals. Reviewing the policy instrument set in the light of the potential of digital technologies is likely to produce far more fundamental and effective results.

"A barrier to this is the challenge of how to bring into the policy design process, at any moment in time, current knowledge of what is technologically possible and relevant to the achievement of the policy goal through instrument choice and implementation. Resolving this has major implications for strategy, measurement, public servants’ skills in policy design and ICT development, multi-disciplinary working between ICT, policy and legislative teams, and policy implementation project design and execution."

Coding waste

It concludes that coding existing administrative processes into hardware and software - no matter how elegant, standardised or sharable that code might be - can thus waste time and money, create legacy systems to give future inertia, and miss transformational opportunities.

The report goes on to point out however that this is "not as problematic an outcome as the underlying constitutional and political effects of a social trend towards a population thinking of its government in the same terms as a supermarket, an airline, or a reality TV game show, as opposed to a means by which collective decisions are made about the lives and life chances of it and its children."

Report co-author Paul Waller added, “It is essential that we get rid of language like ‘services’ and ‘customers’ that comes from thinking of government as a supermarket or airline.

“If you want to transform government and public administration, you have to redesign your instruments and their legislation to embed the use of technology in creative ways, not just build a web front end.”

The working paper 'Digital Government: Overcoming the Systemic Failure of Transformation' - subtitled 'Digital transformation through policy design with ICT-enhanced instruments' -  invites feedback. It has been published to coincide with the 11th National Digital Conference, on June 15 in London.