It’s all about execution

There are many reasons why persistent problems don’t get solved. Loosely, they can be grouped into:

  • Lack of resources
  • Lack of technology
  • Lack of motivation.

The four-year-old drought in California, one of the most severe since the state started keeping records, provides a good example of the interplay of these factors. Neither money nor labour can create more water: the resource simply is not there. Better technology might help California’s residents and businesses make more efficient use of what’s available, and provide more efficient and affordable methods of treating water that today is unusable. However, technology is only useful if people are aware what it can do and are (a resource that’s often missing) willing to accept change (a motivation that’s often lacking).

The will to make only changes that support the status quo is probably greater than the will to change how California uses water for the long term. Entrenched interests resist shifting to less water-hungry crops. It may be impossible to reach a compromise that balances different users’ needs. Finally, the time scales are mismatched: refilling depleted aquifers or reversing climate change is measured in centuries and millennia, not human lifetimes. All of these factors help create a stalemate.

In this case, however, it’s reasonable, if short-termist, for people to think that even this long a drought is temporary: rain must fall sometime and restore “normality”. We can’t have the same confidence about solving our most intractable social problems after centuries, of failure.

The UK is one of the richest countries in the world. And yet, government statistics say that in 2013 2.35 million households — approximately 10.4% — lived in fuel poverty, up from ten years earlier, down from 20 years earlier. In October 2015 the Money Charity estimates aggregated personal debt at £1.456 trillion — a per-household average of £53,918. Average debt per UK/EU student in England was £12,6511 in 2013/2014. A BBC study found that 21% of Britain’s population are digitally excluded because they lack the digital skills and capabilities necessary to benefit from internet access, and that just under 10% of the adult population may never be able to gain them. These are just three of the long-term intractable issues that our country struggles to solve — see also community rehabilitation, world-class health and social care, prisoners’ connections to their families, and digital enablement.

Even during the past few years of austerity, the money spent studying and trying to fix such problems has run to billions of pounds. Arguably, therefore, the problem is not a lack of resources.

Britain’s long history of failed large IT projects also tells us that the simple availability of technology by itself won’t be enough. In the past decade such efforts have included the National Project for IT, which was meant to move the entire NHS into a single national infrastructure to connect England’s 30,000 GPs and 300 hospitals and gave every patient a centrally held electronic health record. The project was initiated in 2002 and originally budgeted at £2.3 billion over three years; it was effectively disbanded in 2011, by which time the final cost was estimated at £20 billion. In 2013, the Public Accounts Committee called it one of the “worst and most expensive contracting fiascos” in public sector history.

But that’s just the beginning. Billions more have been spent defining strategic road maps, visions for the future, and architectures for the implementation of a digital revolution in how people should interact with government services and the world at large. And yet, what changes?

One consequence of the recession and these expensive failures was the 2011 formation of the Government Digital Service to take a new approach. Instead of large, eventually cancelled projects plagued by time and budget overruns, GDS is intended to create light, small pilot projects that can be quickly adapted to changing conditions and, when successful, copied and deployed. GDS is meant to create digital channels — not just internet access — through which government may interact differently with citizens and other sectors.

And yet, even GDS, while effective at improving the “customer experience”, has failed to effect fundamental change. For example, one early proof-of-concept demonstration was intended to show what “government as a service” might be like, turning the process of completing the paperwork to start a new business into one of a few minutes rather than a few months. Even if this demonstration had been turned into a real service, it was still built on the old organisation-centric structure in which the government holds and processes the data. Why do even these expert, well-intentioned staff wind up creating yet another enterprise architecture, rather than a paradigm shift?

That kind of streamlining is a beginning, but not the right one. Solving our most complex problems will require profound reinvention of how we think about systems and data. If every system continues to be built as a front to a large, centrally held database, citizens and consumers will continue to be fundamentally disempowered — and no new solutions to age-old problems will present themselves. Meanwhile, the cyber threats to such databases will continue to rise, leaving all of us vulnerable to the big customer system hacks and personal data losses that reached the headlines every week in 2015 and are endemic to these failed architectures .