Is it time to ditch Digital Government?

by Eddie Copeland

Stian Westlake, Executive Director of Policy and Research at Nesta, recently posted a blog calling for innovation policymakers ‘to be less boring’.

The main thrust of his argument was that innovation policy is littered with technocratic jargon and consultant-speak (looking for a ‘Technology Strategy Board’, anyone?) that – to average citizen – is at best confusing, and at worst genuinely off-putting.

Reading his article prompted me to dust off a half-written blog I started a few weeks ago calling for the end of Digital Government. To be clear (and I hope you are still reading for the clarification), I mean the end of the term ‘digital government’. For the exact same reasons Stian raises, those of us who advocate the role of technology in improving the way government operates do ourselves few favours if we use language that fails to resonate with the people we are trying to persuade. The term is frankly misleading. And as Adobe’s Peter Cummings often reminds me, ‘No-one ever talks about the ‘digital private sector’’.

It is a perennial hazard for the tech sector that, while inventing new gadgets and techniques, it also tends to coin buzzwords. Alongside ‘digital government’ there are the lofty notions of ‘big data’, ‘smart cities’, ‘the Internet of Things’, ‘crowdsourcing’ and ‘Government as a Platform’. The risk of using such phrases is that it leaves us speaking to a tech audience of 1% (who probably agree with us anyway), rather than the 99% we seek to influence.

This goes beyond mere words. Attend any tech policy event and you’ll tend to spot the same self-selected faces at all of them. To emphasise the point, following the publication of my recent report on how smarter use of technology and data could help deliver reform of local government (Small Pieces Loosely Joined), I have been fortunate to receive numerous invitations to speak to groups of CIOs, CTOs and other public sector digital teams. Those occasions are hugely valuable opportunities to share ideas with experts at the digital coal face. But to have real impact, I know my primary goal must be to persuade Local Government CEOs.

That is because, if it is to mean anything at all, ‘digital government’ cannot be about bolting on new technology to old ways of working, but about fundamentally reshaping how public sector organisations operate. It must not be driven by CIOs or CTOs but the most senior leadership figures in an organisation. It is a dereliction of duty for political leaders and CEOs to leave the reform agenda to the IT department claiming it’s just about ‘digital’. And yet the fault is ours. By using the label ‘digital government’ in the first place we encourage the view that this is all about technology. That in turn encourages the wrong policy response.

The same can be seen in the current debate on smart cities. The pervasive wisdom is that if cities install lots of urban sensors and computing (the technology) it will provide information (the data) that will offer powerful insights that will lead to greater efficiency (better ways of working). Policymakers then tie themselves in knots trying to figure out what the business model might be to justify the upfront investment. This is because their technology-orientated view makes them start in precisely the wrong place. As with digital government, cities must first decide how they want to function (better ways of working), then see what information they would need to be able to operate that way (the data), and the very final question is what equipment is required (the technology).

The onus is on the technologists to put this right.

We must stop preaching to the tech choir and start explaining in plain English to those politicians, civil servants and citizens who don’t think they have any interest in technology why they should sit up and take note. We must show them that if they care about education, they must care about technology. If they are concerned for the future of the NHS, they should be concerned with the opportunities offered by technology to improve healthcare. If their focus is on agriculture, transport or welfare they must understand that there is no policy area that does not stand to be transformed for good or ill by technology over the next decade.

As a serial offender of using tech-speak, I recognise this will not be easy.

There is a fine balance to be struck between speaking in plain English and dumbing things down. It is right that events are still held, and publications are still written, that allow a technology audience to further its own specialist understanding (Policy Exchange will still offer its fair share of these). But when there appears to be fewer than a dozen MPs who have any real interest in, or knowledge of, technology, we also need to make a far better attempt to reach out to them. As a former teacher, I am reminded of the old adage that: ‘there are no bad students, only bad teachers’. Much the same applies to the way policymakers communicate what’s important to their audience.

So as we all seek to further progress during the next Parliament with digital government, big data, smart cities, the Internet of Things, crowdsourcing and Government as a Platform, let’s make sure we say what we really mean: ‘reforming public services’, ‘making better use of information’, ‘improving cities’, ‘connecting devices’, ‘engaging the public’ and ‘coming up with common tools and ways of doing things’.

After all, it’s up to the technology policy crowd ‘to be less boring’ too.

Follow Eddie Copeland on Twitter @EddieACopeland

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