Real digital transformation of government — no more lipstick on pigs

To actually achieve a transformation of government through the use of digital technologies, we will require a complete reversal of the current way of looking at the challenge. Instead of viewing the problem from the point of view of the internet, we must start with the political process of policy design. So many papers and books have been written about the digital transformation of government without mentioning what governments do and how they do it. In any other sector that would immediately look strange. That has to change for us to make progress.

This is our conclusion from research, discussion and consultation at Brunel University London on why so called e-government or digital government has not delivered on its promises and shows little sign of improvement. A colleague, Professor Vishanth Weerakkody, and I have now published our full analysis in the form of a Working Paper called Digital Government: Overcoming the Systemic Failure of Transformation available at tinyurl.com/dgtransform.

In particular, we must look at how technology can change the range and characteristics of policy instruments — the tools that governments choose from to intervene in the economy, society and environment to make change, such as taxes, benefits, licences, information campaigns and more tangible things like public services and infrastructure. They are the practical results of government, and only when technology changes those can we say it has transformed government.

e-Government: good but not progressing

The notion of “transforming government with technology” sounds important but no-one has seemed clear exactly what it means. In so-called stage models of e-government, it always followed information, interactions and transactions in the pictures, but in practical reality it never did. Many good things have happened, but two or three phases of trying to “make government digital” over the last 20 years — mostly re-inventing the previous programmes with new labels — have not really taken us beyond information provision and a few online transactions. The logic has been that government equals services equals web sites — but none of that is true. The result has been more complicated and expensive variations of the same thing: putting lipstick on pigs.

Indeed, there have been no new ideas for over a decade and what we see now is just an assortment of propositions about technology, data, platforms, agility, users and so on that don’t really connect into the practicality of what governments and public bodies actually do in the real world.

Governments do policy, not services

The purpose of a government is to make, implement and administer policy decisions on behalf of the community for which it has responsibility, for example a nation or a city, on matters that affect the lives of that community as a whole. However, in relation to digital government, the dominant assumption has been that “government is a service industry”. This is dangerously misleading. In the case of the application of technology to the public sector, it has led to attempts to overlay the processes of newspapers, banks, and retailers on to public functions — the result is a model based on broadcasting information and simple transactions. Yes, some of that does apply to the public sector, but it isn’t what it is really about. Citizens aren’t customers.

The existence and functions of the majority of the public sector arise directly from the choice of policy implementation instruments, determined at the moment of a politician’s decision on policy design. The range of instruments available to achieve policy goals is vast, covering methods of taking money, giving money, giving permission, registering, criminalising, regulating, contracting, and acting directly through state organisations. The choice of instrument may be influenced by factors political, economic, social, cultural, or simply by habit or dogma.

Once the chosen instrument (or more likely, set of instruments) to implement a policy is encoded in law by Parliament, Congress, Council, or whatever is the relevant national or regional legislature, the public administration sets about creating and executing the necessary functions. Looking closely we can see that most parts of the public sector can be classified as either being instruments in themselves (like a healthcare, transport or prison service), or organisations administering instruments like taxes and benefits.

So transformation, or reform, in the public sector is about changing a set of policy instruments. Digital technology (including how it can manage data) can change the economics — thus feasibility — of instruments and open up possibilities for new ones.

The London Congestion Charge illustrates how a combination of number plate recognition, electronic payment systems and data matching has transformed the enforcement of a toll-and-permit instrument from roadside booths, cash, and paper tickets that would make congestion worse. There would be other ways (i.e. instruments) for managing congestion of course, using technology or not, and that’s the point: the options for design are changed.

It has often been said that civil and public servants need digital skills. Maybe so, but more important is that their digital expert colleagues better understand the specialised and often complex policy development, legislative and administrative world within which they are attempting to enable transformation. Then they can have the right conversations with the politicians, policy designers, lawyers and administrators that own the challenges — a conversation not just about web sites and associated technical concepts.

There is an implication for government projects. Moving a tax, regulatory, benefits, healthcare or energy policy system from a complex mix of inter-related instruments to a reformed set is a hugely complex task, requiring programme and project management skills of a high order, and fresh capability in the front line. A large programme might have interlinked streams for policy evolution, legislation, stakeholder management, procurement, communications, finance, construction, people, IT… If you add in novel technology to the mix, things are no easier and an even wider set of skills is needed. But that doesn’t make it a technology project: it is still policy implementation and it is a huge error to focus on the digital component — worse to allow that to drive the project.

No matter how technically skilled your government digital teams are, if they don’t understand how policy and legislation actually works, or at least how to communicate and work with their colleagues in those areas, they are doomed to struggle.