Technology And The Public Sector

The new Scottish Social Security Bill marks a watershed for the public sector in the UK — and I had the great pleasure of talking to the Minister about it this morning — she kindly did a short introductory video about it.

It is a truism that new administrative legislation creates new computer systems, but the mechanism whereby this happens is under-explored.

By insisting on a robust pre-legislative process, the Minister Jeane Freeman has shone a powerful spotlight on how legislation is turned into code.

Previous approaches have been of a heave-it-over-the-wall approach: “here’s yer law techies, knit some software that conforms to it”. To make a really expensive disaster you really only need one other ingredient: the pre-declaration of great results and transformation.

I can hereby announce a world-class programme that in 5 years time will deliver outstanding transformation and benefit…

As us code-monkeys say: its just a small matter of coding.

The last few years have seen the transformation of how private sector software is delivered — the lean software movement, product-market fit, customer discovery and so on.

At the heart of this is a journey from obscurity to mass market, finding niches, making them profitable, extending and growing to become ubiquitous software.

The road to ubiquity in the public sector is somewhat shorter — pass a new tax law and everyone becomes your ‘customer’.

It is clear that lean government software is a very different dish from lean applications — although some of the ingredients are the same: customer-led design, usability testing, fast iteration, holistic design teams, etc, etc.

But we need to think more about how legislation defines computer systems.

In part it is about CRUD (create, read, update, delete) in particular who has permission to perform these basic systems functions. But it also covers the definition of data, the audit of its use, recourse — how you get on or off the list, and partition — which public sector bodies hold data of this type.

Good arguments can be made that there needs to be different routes through parliament for administrative bills that will lead to new computer systems.

Already we have one route and bill pack for Supply bills (bills dealing with money) and a different one for non-Supply. Maybe we need a third, iterative route for computer bills?

How different would Universal Credit be if it had to come back to Parliament with a full report for another vote after the pilots?

The bill pack content should be reviewed. Should computer system bill packs include usability and quality sign-offs from dedicated state audit bodies?

Should there be a computer system equivalent of a law reform process that looks at how many annual transactions there are on each state computer system, and measures how usable they are? High engagement time is a positive indicator for Facebook — but a very negative one for your tax system.

I could go on (and believe me I will!).

I am going to the OneTeamGov Scotland event in Edinburgh (if I can get a ticket!) on November 23rd — if you are hit me up, lets talk.


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