Digital technologies are changing our daily experience of public services, much of it for the better.
Over the past few decades, government departments have migrated information and forms from paper onto a screen, with numerous benefits. HM Revenue and Customs, for example, can celebrate over 20 fun-packed years of online tax returns, from just 38,000 filed in 2001 to around 11 million in 2022.
Yet the original political ambitions were not simply about moving government online, but to use digital, data and technology to redesign democracy and our public institutions.
As Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee commented in late 2021, “departments have failed to understand the difference between improving what currently exists and real digital transformation, meaning that they have missed opportunities to move to modern, efficient ways of working”.
This lack of understanding is a relatively recent phenomenon. During the 1990s, the UK Government planned to use technology to change relationships between citizens and the state, with implications for the structure of government and democratic processes.
By 1998, the Cabinet Office’s Central IT Unit (CITU) was exploring how government could use DDaT to fundamentally re-organise. And by 2002, there was a consultation on ways “to promote, strengthen and enhance our democratic structures ... [and] to give individuals more choice about how they can participate in the political process.”
Government planned to work more collaboratively with citizens to address the decline in democratic engagement and participation, and to resolve the dysfunctional outcomes created by administrative boundaries of departments. The ambition was not to digitise government as it was, but to use technology to co-create a model of open democracy, with cross-cutting policies, routine citizen engagement, and better political transparency and accountability.
But ask most politicians to define ‘digital government’ today and they’re unlikely to refer to citizen engagement and participation, integrated policy design, and the renewal of democracy. It’s far more likely they’ll simply point at the hundreds of silo government services being delivered onto a single central website and say “D’oh! That’s digital!”
Yet the repeated priority given to pan-government websites and moving transactional services online ignores that – as the Government IT Strategy of 1996 warned – “purely applying technology to existing working practices, or at the customer interface, will not achieve the full benefits”.
Instead of digital becoming integral to policy making, it’s largely used to automate the status quo. Digital teams are left outside the political tent to work on front end website services in the hope this will somehow magically transform the wider policies, organisations and processes behind them. But it hasn’t and it won’t.
This absence of a meaningful digital transformation has left governments ill prepared to anticipate and respond effectively to the growing volume and frequency of changes in the world around us.
Radical improvements will only materialise when governments understand and adopt digital practices and cultures: citizen participation in the design of policies and processes; continuous feedback and data to inform and update policy making; rapid experimentation to learn and adapt faster; improved organisation design; and cross-government systems for efficiency, agility and scale.
The most successful planning and operational models converge on an approach with similar characteristics, built around a cycle of evidence and needs, development, testing, learning and perpetual improvement.
Yet little of this mindset applies to policy making, which is missing out on one of the biggest benefits of the digital age: the opportunity to root itself in an iterative cycle of objective learning and refinement. Digital could be a game changer, a force for progressive social and economic good—if only it were better used and directed.
For this to happen, politicians need to rediscover and revive their earlier idealistic objectives—to use digital to overhaul and improve how government plans and operates, including its foresight, resilience, legitimacy and relevance.
My soon to be published book Fracture: the collision between technology and democracy—and how we fix it explores the longstanding ambition to make better use of digital, data, and technology, and how digital government can get back on track.
It has four parts:
- An exploration of the longstanding political desire for digital transformation to deliver fundamental improvements in the relationships between citizens and their governments, with nine observations on why delivering this has proved so elusive.
- A review of numerous digital trends and their implications for politics and democracy.
- A look at how governments, politicians, and policymakers can better anticipate and adapt to our fast moving digital world—and get their digital mojo back.
- A set of 15 ideas to reboot transformation - to renew and strengthen democracy and improve the effectiveness of government policymaking and administration.
The experiences of the past three decades make one thing abundantly clear: the ambitious and aspirational ideals of digital government won’t be delivered until politicians and political parties weave digital, data, and technology into the fabric of their thinking, their manifesto promises, and their policies.
Fracture aims to play a part in this process—to stimulate debate and political action, and to re-awaken the political desire to radically improve the way our governments work to fix the growing fracture between technology and democracy.
Jerry Fishenden is a technologist, writer, and composer. He works with governments on the effective use of digital, data, and technology, as well as in business and academia. He was the specialist adviser to the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee inquiry into digital government, and the Public Administration Select Committee inquiry into government IT.
Fracture will be published in mid-February 2023. An e-book version will be available later in the year.
Image source: Jerry Fishenden