What it takes to build a digital government: A conversation with The Right Honorable Lord Maude of Horsham

In 2010 Francis Maude, The Right Honorable Lord Maude of Horsham, was appointed Britain’s Minister for the Cabinet Office. Under his leadership, the British Government became a world leader for digital government, creating the Government Digital Service (GDS) now replicated by governments around the globe.

Francis also led the Government’s programs on open data and transparency. The UK became the top-ranked country in the world for open government; and he chaired the newly-formed Open Government Partnership (OGP), now joined by more than 70 governments.

We spoke with Francis leading up to his sessions at FWD50 2018.

What does it take to turn a digital strategy into government policy?

You need somebody to lead it. The elements you need are the political cover, in our case that was me as a senior politician backing it and supporting the team. You need a technical leader, someone who has a high degree of technical credibility. You need a team at the centre of government that has a critical mass of technical knowledge and understanding in a multi-disciplinary way. People that cover all aspects — not just the pure technology side of things.

Then you need a mandate, one that informs standards across government. It needs the ability to spot money being spent on the wrong thing, which then is backed by the capability to support the rest of the government in doing the right thing.

Those are the essentials.

When you say support government doing the right thing — what were some of the challenges you faced while creating the Government Digital Service?

Well, the right thing is producing a digital solution. Most governments are locked into long-term conventional IT contracts. They tend to be expensive, they tend to be very opaque. They are about automating existing processes, not designing new processes. Digital is not just about the technology, it’s about redesigning government processes from the outside in rather than as governments conventionally tend to do — not expecting the users of services to adapt themselves to how government happens to be organized. This is a different mindset.

I often quote the conversation I had with the then Prime Minister of Estonia when I visited there in about 2012. I said to him: “How is it that tiny Estonia became the world leader, as it then was, for e-government, digital government?”

He said, “When we became an independent country 20 years before, we had two advantages. We had no legacy (because the Russians had cleaned the place out). We had no money. So we had to do things differently.”

We had the second one of those, we had no money, but we sure had a lot of legacies. We did have this huge legacy of failed and expensive IT projects. A lot of people in government were very invested in those failed systems and very reluctant to accept that they weren’t working well. You had people who were insisting that they were adopting new approaches. People would say, “Yes we’re definitely doing this an agile way,” without really knowing what that meant.

A lot of resistance to creating digital applications and digital services came from the idea that they were going to replace a lot of manual jobs in government. I remember when we got Martha Lane Fox to do her initial report to me on how to revolutionize digital government. She said, “Your policy should be digital by default. If it’s something that’s capable of being done online, it should be done only online. You have to close down the big non-online channels.”

Governments very rarely do that. They rarely have succeeded in creating online services that were so good and so reliable that you could safely close things down in the physical channels. We know that the cost of running a digital service is a fraction of the cost of doing it by telephone, in person or by mail. It was a more revolutionary way of approaching government. But a lot of people were heavily invested in the old ways of doing it, so they tended to resist the changes.

If you were charged with creating the Government Digital Service in 2018, what are some things you would do differently?

God, if only we’d had the experience of having done what we’d did. We were very much at the cutting edge. No one had done this before in our kind of government. We would have done it more quickly, more boldly, and we were kind of writing the textbook as we went. Now, the textbook fully exists. We would have cheerfully bought our way out of some of the legacy contracts that were not serving the needs of the public.

What technologies would you have adopted today, perhaps that were not available in 2010?

I’m not the right person to talk to about the technologies. I’ve been hearing a lot of people talking about blockchain, AI, machine learning — that these are all going to be the answer to every government’s prayers. The truth is most governments are nowhere near able to benefit from those technologies because they’re not even at 101.

You need good data to benefit from these advanced technologies, and most governments have terrible data. It’s inconsistent, inaccurate, and poorly presented. It needs a lot of improvement.

One of the things we did alongside our technology program was to have a very aggressive open data program. We simply released vast numbers of data sets which were very valuable as a raw material. The data industry section used it, which meant the quality of the data improved.

There used to be a lot of resistance to releasing data sets. Every reason you could imagine was produced as to why we shouldn’t release them. Last was always “Minister, the data isn’t of high enough quality yet, so we need to improve the quality.” To which my response was: “Publish it, and you’ll find it gets better, quite quickly.” Partly because it’s crowdsourced, the inaccuracies get crowdsourced out, but secondly because it’s just embarrassing to have a public data set that is just so inaccurate that it then gets improved.

When you released this data to the public how was it applied? Were there some really innovative ways that the public sector worked with it?

There was always a bit of a debate about the extent to which we should try to add value to the data before releasing it. My people certainly were always saying we should release the raw data, the reference data, and allow others to add value to it. That’s where the government treats it as a monopoly resource; it’s unlikely to create maximum benefit from it.

What were some of the uses made of it? Well, the developers and entrepreneurs were using it as raw material. We had a very flourishing data tech sector in the UK, attracted by the large amounts of data that was available. We also had social entrepreneurs and other organizations using financial data to highlight inefficiencies. We always hoped that there’d be an army of armchair auditors helping the government to better spend its money, to provide a beneficial challenge. That never quite took off to the extent that we’d hoped. Releasing data makes you accountable in real time. If you’re in public service, whether you’re a politician or an official, that’s generally out of the comfort zone.

What’s next for the UK’s Digital Service?

I’d say the genius of the UK’s Digital Service comes in it not being marginalized. It’s now front and centre within the government. It wasn’t when we set it up in its first four years or so. After our first four years, the United Nations ranked the UK as the first in the world for e-government.

I’d say now it has been somewhat reduced in its prominence, with more freedom given to individual ministries to do what they want. This gets in the way of having a more coherent approach across government. The disadvantage is that progress toward government as a platform will be much less.

There will be big opportunities for government, particularly governments with less legacy, to leapfrog us in government as a platform… where government-wide services are laid across canonical data registries with APIs so that outside providers can provide value-added services. That is made much more difficult if we allow the vertical silos in government to reassert themselves.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with the FWD50 audience?

Our work on digital transformation was part of a much broader program of government modernization where we cut the cost of Britain’s government by over 50 billion pounds in the space of five years. That would be about 80–90 billion Canadian dollars. As we now work with other governments to help them to reform themselves, cut their costs, and improve the quality of services. What we’re shown, absolutely clearly, is that you can in government do more for less money. There is the opportunity to dramatically improve the quality of services while cutting the costs. That’s what I and my colleagues do now: we work with other governments around the world to achieve the same benefits.

FWD50 returns November 2019.