This piece from Matthew Cain, who is the Head of Digital at the London borough of Hackney in the UK, is well worth a read.
I’m inclined to simply copy and paste the whole thing because it says most of the things I, and perhaps many others, tend to think about digital transformation in government.
It is a great rendition of the possibilities and deep frustrations of so many aspects of the digital transformation endeavour, frustrations charaterised by Matthew as “a job half started” but which I would describe as “half a conversation.”
Anyway, I’ve excerpted here some of the more pungent paragraphs from an analysis whose insights are as timely as they are deeply apt (all the emphases are mine):
- Although its achievements (the Government Digital Service in the UK) were considerable, its founders later cautioned against the risk of delivering little more than “lipstick on a pig”. Transactions may largely be digital by default (or on the path) and signposted from GOV.UK but the government departments that administer them remain fragmented, organised around the needs of government rather than those of the user.
- But government is primarily a policymaking and lawmaking machine, and here digital has had too little impact. The process of devising, consulting and implementing policies remains firmly rooted in an architecture of government that was created in response to the post war settlement. What better example than Brexit — a set of policies and legislation that will be devised to deliver a pre-determined outcome against a fixed timescale?
- Democracy, government and public services need better outcomes, not just more elegant means. Digital needs political leadership. Until we can explain how a digital government can build a better society it is unlikely to matter enough to leaders.
- Digital is at risk of being siloed as ‘better transactions’. We need to show how we can join-up transactions, policy and politics to create a fundamentally different value for citizens.
- We need our institutions to be building digitally-enabled social change, not just using digital to campaign for new rules and waterfall interventions.
- Too many conversations around digital happen between technologists. I fear too few are represented where the real decisions get made. We (technologists) may need to talk less to each other, in order to influence thinking about trade agreements. health and social care and public service design.
- GDS tackled transactions whilst most of government continued unaffected. Central government departments continue to pass secondary legislation and guidance to its delivery partners — a goldmine for technology vendors selling ‘compliant’ software — rather than policy as code. We don’t know what policymaking in the digital age will look like, so we need some prototypes to find out.
A second piece from Matthew is a commentary he wrote for the RSA analyzing the new UK Digital Government Strategy. More excerpts below, same emphasis from me. And very much in the same vein as the earlier analysis:
- It’s a shame, therefore, that the strategy lacks any mention of culture or democracy. It’s a government document which examines the state’s role in relation to other providers. Given current debates about fake news, the omission is particularly jarring. There was no draft strategy developed in a wiki, no prototype solution tested, or clear calls to action for other interested parties. It ended up as a standard government document.
- Digital change is particularly challenging for hierarchical organisations because it cuts across traditional responsibilities.
- The strategy’s failings may reflect the absence of a political culture to underpin it. There’s no campaigning charity that was leading a campaign of impatience at the 14 months it took for the strategy to emerge. Beyond occasional articles in the technology sector, there’s little talk of digital in the Westminster village. Among the many priorities of Government who will push back if alternative commitments are prioritised over key aspects of the digital strategy.
Both pieces together are as good a critique, clear-headed and quietly passionate, as you will find about what happens (and it keeps happening so far as I can tell) when the digital transformation project drifts too far from the big questions of purpose, mission and context whose essentially political and human dimensions should be its persistent guide. It’s only half a conversation, the full significance and impact of which demands that we find the other half.