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GDS isn't working (part 5): No vision, no ambition



Guest blog: Alan Mather outlines his view of a need for more clarity in what the Government Digital Service is trying to achieve


Efforts to transform government have been underway for more than 20 years. Despite that, it has remained firmly as the catalyst  ̶  the part of the reaction that remains unchanged  ̶ throughout each iteration. 

We need to understand that government isn't the subject of the transformation, it's the object. The citizen is the subject. It's their experience, their life, that we want to improve.

Whilst I have a strong disliking for the word "transformation"  ̶  because it implies a sudden, dramatic shift from what we used to call "as is" to "to be" and because it means different things to different people (one person's transformation is another person's incremental change)  ̶  it's the word that is used to describe current change efforts in UK government.

To get a sense of the level of ambition and vision for today's programme, I looked at the Beyond 2020 strategy. It contains a couple of extraordinary statements.

Here's the first:

"Nobody can predict what the world of 2020 will look like. Technology moves quickly and changes constantly. However, we do expect what we call ‘digital’ currently to be largely mainstream by then".

This is both true and false. More importantly, it's entirely irrelevant in this context.

It's true because we all know that there is a new iPhone coming out in a month or so and yet no-one outside of Apple HQ knows how it's all going to come together. We don't know what products will be released next year, let alone in 2019 and 2020. So far so dull.

It's false because we know how technology is moving and what there will be more of and less of.

Mobile expectation

In 2001, one of our first demos of the Government Gateway to the then minister of the Cabinet Office, Ian McCartney (its original sponsor) showed a VAT form being completed on a Compaq iPaq, sent over GPRS and acknowledged by HM Customs as being complete and valid. We didn't know it would be six years before the iPhone would come along and that it would be longer still before mobile access to the internet was common, but we could see it coming.

We don't need to know which products are coming along to set a direction for how we want our online government experience to look for the citizen. Technology in government, once deployed, can stick around for decades. Ask HMRC how long the CHIEF system has been around, or the Home Office about the Police National Computer, or Cabinet Office, for that matter, about the Gateway. We don't need to harness the latest and greatest product capability to make a difference.

And it's irrelevant because in these days of driverless cars, missions to Mars, rocket stages that no longer fall uselessly into the sea, artificial intelligence engines that get the maximum score on Ms Pacman, augmented reality and more …. we are still talking about digital government as paving the cowpath. That is, putting forms online.

In that context, here is the second extraordinary statement:

"We want to make the best possible preparations for the post-2020 period. We will use current and emerging sources of data so that we can understand what is working well for the current transformation programmes and combine this learning with emerging macro-trends to make the best possible plans for the period after 2020."

I challenge you to tell me, in simple words, what that means. I suspect you can't, so let me translate as best I can:


Instead, the so-called transformation plan for 2017-20 simply repeats the mistakes of the past, focusing on linear transactions, ticking them off one by one, without dates, ambition or any sense of rationale. 

For instance, here are some of the "deliverables" picked at random from the document (I'd like to call it a plan, but there are no dates or details):

  • Continue to deliver world class digital services and transform the way government operates, from front end to back office, in a modern and efficient way.
  • Make better use of data  ̶  not just for transparency, but to enable transformation across government and the private sector.
  • Broaden the definition of users; for example to reflect that some will interact with government through third party services that use government APIs.
  • Design and deliver joined up, end-to-end services.
  • We will build a framework for the best way to deliver transformation across government.
  • Building a national data infrastructure of registers (authoritative lists that are held once across government) and ensuring they are secured appropriately.
  • Building shared components and platforms, extending the use of the ones that we have and onboarding more services.

Are you any the wiser? Do you see the vision? Do you see the ambition? Do you know what's coming and when and are you palpably excited for how it might change your life for the better?

I wasn't quite being honest when I declared that there is no vision. The document does state one. It says:

“We will transform the relationship between citizens and the state   ̶  putting more power in the hands of citizens and being more responsive to their needs.”

Which to me is a lot like saying: "Our washing powder will wash even whiter than the last one that washed whiter."

Forgotten citizen

We have forgotten about citizens   ̶  the ones for whom we truly want to see things changed for the better. We have instead labelled them "users" and decided that if we work closely with them we will design better services. That's backwards.

The citizen's interaction with government needs to be about them, not about government. We need to think about what we want them to become, what power we truly want to put in their hands and how we will make that happen. Going through the list, form by form, is not how that will come alive.

Here is an excerpt of the transformation programmes underway as of November 2016:

Those programmes, inevitably, translate into some online forms:

Transformation? No. Not even close.

All the way back when this began in the late 90s and early 00s, we declared that we wanted to harness the potential of the web. Initially this was to layer a veneer on top of government, to mask its complexity from the citizen by presenting a joined up and citizen focused front end.

We knew that the transactions underneath that would start off point to point. We thought that would buy us time to engineer some truly joined up capability and designed the Gateway to allow that - it could take in a single schema, split it up and send to different parts of government, get the responses, join it all up and send it out again.  That capability remains unused.

(Image above from a 2003 conference)

It's time to move away from the point to point nature of efforts and to imagine what we want our citizens to be able to do when we have delivered a successful digital capability. For instance:

- We want to encourage new start-ups and make it easy to create a company with, say, 10 lines of information and three clicks  ̶  company registration, payroll, VAT, R&D credits, etc. What will it take to achieve that? How will we know we are doing it right? What will the impact be on accountants and other professionals as well as on potential start-up founders?

- We want to make it so that there is no need for anyone to ever phone HMRC to resolve a problem. How many people who could use the internet make a phone call now? How many problems could be moved to an internet channel making a call unnecessary? How many result from mistakes made by HMRC could we correct before the citizen knew and how many can we prevent from occurring at all? How would we make all of those changes? How can we move the entire relationship a company has with HMRC to online interactions? How can we do the same for a company employee? For a retiree? Not everyone wants to be online all the time, but if they want to be, we should give them a way.

- We want to make the administration after the loss of a loved one simple and effective, cutting by 80% the amount of paperwork and the time it takes to handle all of the different pieces  ̶  inheritance tax, pensions, council tax and so on. Can Tell Us Once help? Why is Tell Us Once not available everywhere? What else would we need to do?

We need to flip the thinking away from what do our departments do and how do we put that online to the problems our citizens have and how we can solve them through smart use of technology.

About a vision

This isn’t about user needs. It's about a vision of how we want our citizens to lead their lives in relation to government services. This is Henry Ford territory: it's not about faster horses.

As former head of Australia’s Digital Transformation Office Paul Shetler has said: “We can’t kumbaya our way through this.” We need to get concrete with assumptions, plans, deadlines, delivery focus.

To make this happen, we'll want to lay out some assumptions

1) The shape of government isn't going to change materially in any way that would help our efforts. Departments are still going to be departments. We aren't going to split them into horizontal layers focused on citizens. We aren't going to join up the machinery itself, we're going to have to do that through our own capabilities. We are going to have to pretend that it's joined up through the use of technology.

2) We have all the technology that we need. We don't need to wait for flying, driverless cars. We don't need to see what's around the corner, or what's going to launch in 2020. The technology that we launched in 2001 and that we have today is all that we need to pull this off.

3) We have all of the capability and capacity today. If it's not already in the public sector, it's in the private sector. We shouldn't bolster one at the expense of the other, in either direction. It's all there today and we need only to focus it.

So what we have is what we need and vice versa. It's time to lay out a true, specific vision and to back that up with plans.

We then need to be transparent about those plans, about the financials and about our progress. Delays will be forgiven if they are telegraphed early along with the true reason.

Whilst we have what we need, it won't be easy to create this level of change and so we need to bring people along for the ride, explaining what is and isn't happening and why. 

Rule #1 - No surprises.

Rule #2 - See rule 1.

Alan Mather has held several digital roles in central government, including chief executive officer of the Cabinet Office e-Delivery Team (a predecessor to GDS), and is now director at Ardea Enterprises. This has been republished from his In the Eye of the Storm blog and conveys his personal view. There’s scope for alternative perspectives, or agreement, through his blog page’s comment function.

We've been running the rest of the series through the week:

Part 1 - The Emperor and his clothes

Part 2 - The content mystery

Part 3 - The reboot

Part 4 – GOV.UK Verify

Thumbnail image from iStock

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