Digital Government: The gap between vision and reality

by Eddie Copeland

This blog was written for Open Forum Events‘ upcoming conference: Digital Public Services: Simpler. Quicker. More Engaging.

Much has been promised about technology’s ability to radically transform government and public service delivery. Harnessing smart tech is meant to offer the chance to make government leaner, more responsive and more personalised to the needs of individual citizens. Clever use of data – we are told – can help government be more coordinated and target its scarce resources with greater efficiency. Open data, meanwhile, is said to increase transparency, improve accountability and unleash a new wave of citizen- and private sector-led innovation. This is all true, and there has been plenty of activity on these fronts. But have we really seen a radical change in the way government operates? I, for one, am not convinced.

What’s new in Government IT?

I do not deny that developments such as the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS) have led to significant improvements in public-facing transactions. The public may not have noticed much change yet, but they certainly will do when the 25 exemplar services are all made live by March 2015 – more are expected to follow swiftly thereafter. Citizens will have the convenience of interacting with government on their own terms, when and where they want. For government, there are tremendous benefits in the cost savings of moving to digital transactions, which are up to 50 times cheaper than delivering services face-to-face. But digitising transactions, in itself, does little to fundamentally change government. A paper (or poorly-designed electronic) form will just become a digital form. The flow of information and the substance of the transaction will not change. Citizens will be no more engaged in the work of government than they were before. The business model of government service delivery will not be disrupted. That is surely a missed opportunity.

Changing the front face of government is also only part of the story. The real transformation needs to happen behind the scenes. For decades, governments of all colours have worked on the assumption that the only IT that would work for them is bespoke IT: complex systems that are not used anywhere else, lack interoperability, reinforce departmental divisions, and ensure that government benefits from none of the cost savings of using mainstream technology. Both central and local government need to increase the pace of replacing these systems – wherever possible – with standard, interoperable building blocks based on open standards, that can be used again and again. Moving to such a government-as-a-platform model would represent big steps the right direction. To date, far too few have been taken.

The promise of Open Data

As for open data, this was meant to mark a dramatic shift in the relationship between government and citizen. That should not be hyperbole: knowledge is – after all – power, and for the first time in history it is technically possible for the public to have access to the same information as those that govern them. Happily, the UK is a leader in the field. As of October 2013, more than 10,000 datasets had been released and listed on the portal – the most comprehensive resource of its type in the world. Thousands more are available through other public sector data portals, such as Clearly there is much to celebrate. However, again, we should pause to ask whether these measures have led to a radical change in the way government relates to citizens. Is there an army of armchair auditors scrutinising the government’s work? Beyond the undisputed success of London transport apps, have we really seen a wave of private sector innovation using public sector information? Are citizens now able to work with government to help resolve issues in their own communities? On all counts, the answer is surely no – or at least not yet.

There must be more than this

The absence of a digital revolution in government is not because the claims about technology’s and data’s benefits were false. It is also not because government has been shy about engaging with the idea of using technology and data in new ways. It is because they have not gone far enough. What is also missing is an acknowledgement that true digital transformation of government is not about the technology. Technology and data are powerful to extent that they drive changes in the way organisations work. Yes, government has made substantial progress in using technology and releasing datasets. But what we have not yet seen are equivalent shifts in ways of working or delivering public services. That means breaking down silos, it means sharing more data, it means being prepared to work with citizens, and it will almost certainly mean that fewer staff are needed to perform particular tasks. That kind of change is painful, disruptive and hard. It is what businesses have to do to. It is what government should do.

It will also be worth it. Progress is driven by innovation, and there is plenty to innovate in government. There has been much hype about digital government. The challenge now is to look beyond the quick wins and think much more creatively about how technology can live up to its promise of radical reform.

Follow Eddie Copeland on Twitter @EddieACopeland

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