Guest opinion: Vishanth Weerakkody, professor of information systems management and governance at the University of Bradford, says Whitehall needs a different approach to digital policy to deal with the upheavals of leaving the EU
While the UK prides itself as an innovative leader in the sphere of digital government, it has come at a huge cost to the taxpayer and progress with government digital services has been going around in circles for over a decade.
The initiatives by the Cabinet Office in 2011 that led to the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS) were almost all flawed in logic and failed to learn from previous experience.
Not surprisingly, the resulting impact has been the UK leading the world in digital led transformation failures in government. Classic high profile examples from the last decade such as the NHS National Programme for IT, DfT Shared Services, Common Agricultural Policy Delivery, Defence Information Infrastructure and Libra projects, and the most recent universal credit transformation effort, have cost the taxpayer over £20 billion.
This scenario makes me extremely nervous in the face of one of the biggest challenges facing the UK public administration in our generation — Brexit.
Irrespective of the outcome of Brexit, the changes needed in government IT systems are thought to be more complex than those demanded by the year 2000 bug and are estimated to cost the taxpayer several billion pounds. Whilst the majority of the legacy IT systems exist to administer legislation arising from domestic policy, others have been implemented to administer policies arising from the UK’s implementation of EU directives and regulations over the years.
At this point, no-one knows the scale, complexity, ownership or timing of the changes in many areas including trade, immigration, environment, food, security cooperation and other cross-border policy issues. Evidence over the last decade implies that the UK Government’s ability in this regard, even for individual projects within departments, is poor.
This prompts a call for us to stop and reflect if there is a missing link between academic research undertaken in this domain and practice in the outside world (i.e. public administration).
To begin, we need to move away from applying language and models taken from commerce with no adaptation to the governmental context and what they do when applying digital led transformation efforts to public institutions and processes. Commercial or technical terminology such as ‘deliver services’, ‘customers’, ‘end users’ and so on has distorted the frame of reference, leading to wrong diagnoses of problems, inappropriate approaches to applying technology in public administration.
For example, what are commonly called ‘services’ in public administration are actually statutory processes with multiple stakeholders.
Such an analogy has only limited validity in the public sector, which exists under the UK constitution because of legislation determining its form and function, with public funding and political accountability. There is a place for commercial thinking and new public management concepts, but their validity and limitations must be understood in the complex world of government to avoid further messes.
Public sector bodies are not entrepreneurial businesses, but almost the opposite as they must follow their founding legislation impartially and consistently, and the data they collect and use is determined by their legislative base. Government departments are structured around the policy and legislation assigned to their secretary of state by the prime minister. None of these entities are changeable (‘transformable’) at the whim of their managers.
Against this backdrop, when preparing for Brexit, the UK Government needs to reassess the role of GDS and the methods and approaches to digital led transformation it propagates.
For example, an agile approach to all projects and programmes has been mandated, and it is a valid approach for software development and other projects; but it is disputable whether it is viable for large, complex or critical systems development and/or re-engineering efforts, especially when it is not possible for all stakeholders to be ‘in the room’.
I believe no-one understands what ‘agile’ means when applied to policy and legislative reform programmes, such as universal credit, carried out by government departments. Little capability exists to do agile in any form in government, so mandating it makes no sense and has contributed to seriously disrupting critical projects.
Our research – which has involved four years of annual workshops of former government CIOs and senior civil servants plus empirical research – has led to the conclusion that the key to unlocking a real digital transformation in government is to study how technology can change the nature and suitability, thus choice, of instruments used to achieve policy goals. This requires a constructive and informed policy design conversation between policy, legal, administrative and technology professionals.
We posit that the sidelined or adulterated mechanisms such as the business case process, project and programme management disciplines, skills frameworks, Gateway reviews, the senior responsible owner role and procurement need to be stripped back to understand where and why they had value in the first place and rebuilt on robust foundations.
In particular, once we see that projects are in fact implementations of policy and legislation in a changing political and parliamentary context, not a software development task, I am sure that we will gain new insight into how to manage them successfully.
In fact, this will be a good starting point for the massive task ahead for government IT of dealing with Brexit.
Image by Clay Gilliland, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons