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GDS chief outlines vision for Civil Service

11/05/16

Stephen Foreshew-Cain states case for iterative approach to governmental policy-making at techUK conference

Government will have to break down the borders between policy-making and service design to deal with the challenges of the future, according the head of the Government Digital Service (GDS).

Stephen_Foreshew-CainStephen Foreshew-Cain used yesterday's techUKPS2030 conference, staged by IT industry association techUK, to outline a grand vision of UK government that takes a very different approach to the model that has been in place since the mid 19th century.

He said the biggest problem will be dealing with the accelerating pace of change, and that government will have to be more dynamic and responsive. The solution is in a new method of policy making with strong similarities to the agile approach that now underpins digital service development in GDS and other central government bodies.

Close together

“Policy making will be service design, and the designing of services will be the making of policy. Ideas and their implementation will be so close together, and there won't be any new ideas that don't have some kind of implementation in their thinking,” he said.

“Thinking in code, iterating in public, continuously consulting. By 2030 policy-making will be continuously designed and built as a framework that allows for flexibility and feedback, not as a conclusion or fait accompli.

“There are consequences of that. The way the law is made will have to change. Today we're often constrained by what is written on the face of bills, for which we can only have a limited understanding of what the feasibility of implementation looks like.

“But by 2030 legislation will actively support service delivery and does not constrain it. White papers and green papers will be replaced by public prototypes of new, iterative services that people can interact with. Consultation itself will have to change.”

Foreshew-Cain said this will need the involvement of many more people in testing the prototypes than is currently the case for consultations on legislation.

Small and rapid

“I think in 2030 we will have smaller, more rapid and more frequent consultations with citizens,” he said. “We will work not in a sequence of policy design, service design and implementation and operation, but a cycle where they work together to illuminate one another.

“For the old style of top down, predictive policy-making that identifies a big idea and assumes a conclusion, and which doesn't consider service delivery as the best way to get insight into what does and doesn't work, that's not going to cut it.

“If we get this right, this can be true – public services can be so easy to build they can be disposable. Imagine being able to build a service in hours, not months. Imagine being able to create different versions of the same service, then through consultation determine which one works best. Then having done the research on the better one, simply killing off the one that didn't work so well.”

He said it will be possible to do this using a network of interconnected digital components in line with those being developed by GDS, including software platforms, data registers and standards. This would make it easier and cheaper to develop services quickly and discard those that do not work.

But it will also need the Civil Service to employ people who understand the internet, not just in its digital teams but in policy, operations, commercial and legal roles. In turn, this would have to reflect the diversity of people from different backgrounds in society.

Bold prediction

Foreshew-Cain was sufficiently bold to predict this can happen, with a nod towards the themes that have been flagged up in the work over GDS over the past five years.

“By 2030, long before that, we will have fixed the basics,” he said. “Putting users first will be the default approach in government. We won't have to constantly discuss and encourage people to put user needs first, or to work in agile and adaptive ways and iterate towards solutions, all those things will be the default.

“That will be the new standard behaviour of the Civil Service to the point we don't have to think about them any more.”

He also said that by 2030 the organisational structure of government will be much smaller and simpler, without the current silos and using evidence based decision-making.

Picture from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0

 

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