Russell Davies is a writer and strategist. He’s spent twenty-five years working with major institutions figuring out what happens when organisations and services meet the internet. Currently Chief Strategic Officer of BETC, he was Director of Strategy for the Government Digital Service for four years. Here he looks back at the revolution in digital government in the UK and how GOV.UK became a world-leading example of e-government and wonders if that revolution can be re-ignited.
Just about seven years ago, Francis Maude, the Minister for Cabinet Office published a report from Martha Lane Fox about “digital government”. It was called “Revolution. Not evolution” and, to a considerable extent, that’s what it led to. Maude accepted all of the Lane Fox recommendations and kicked off a period of remarkable ‘digital transformation’ within the UK government.
The Government Digital Service (GDS) was created and given real power to control and direct government technology spending, hundreds of digital experts were brought into government and those already within government were given new license and inspiration.
It wasn’t of course, all down to a single report. A small group of pioneers invested time and energy in the reports and conversations that brought Francis Maude and his team into the digital revolution. And way before the Lane Fox report was written digital advocates inside the Civil Service had informal get-togethers like Government “Tea Camps”; the networks and ideas they created were vital in the rapid progress made in 2012 and beyond.
By 2015 the UK government announced it had reduced IT spend by £4bn. Most of the thousands of separate websites maintained by central government departments had been consolidated into one; GOV.UK and that site had won national design awards by replacing the incomprehensible, unusable mess of most government websites with something simpler, clearer and faster. The UK had jumped from 8th to 1st in the UN e-government rankings. And while the dominant story of the Coalition was austerity and stasis the UK government had created in GDS something world-beating and transformative, described by the Wall Street Journal as ‘the gold-standard in the global world of digital government’.
Now, in 2018, many digital practices are starting to look ‘normal for government’. User researchers, developers, product managers and service designers have been integrated into many departments and teams, services are being ‘coded in the open’ and iterated in public. Departments like Justice and DWP, agencies like DVLA and teams like NHSdigital are doing significant and meaningful work making digital services more useful and accessible. Platform services like ‘Notify’ are being rolled out. Big, everyday transactions like renewing your car tax are seen by the public to be easy and simple to do.
Perhaps most remarkably #OneTeamGov, a grass roots network within the Civil Service, is hosting un-conferences, creating ‘micro-actions for reform’ and co-ordinating and inspiring continuing improvements in services outside the normal hierarchies and silos of the state machine. The annual expression of this network in the UKGovcamp extends that influence to Permanent Secretaries - just as the internet was designed to route about outages, internet-era people are routing around organisational and hierarchical roadblocks.
Unsurprisingly though, not everything in the digital garden is rosy. Vital GDS powers like spend control are being weakened. The ‘oligopoly’ of technology suppliers is reasserting its influence. And, while brilliant work is being done making individual services more effective and more humane, the fundamental organisational reforms needed to really take advantage of the possibilities of digital look less likely than they did seven years ago. There are engaged, capable, willing people across the Civil Service, they’re working hard to deliver brilliant digital services - there’s not much evidence though that they’re being supported from ‘above’. There seems to be thin understanding and mild ambition for digital amongst Ministers and senior political leaders. They like the sound of digital but are unwilling to dig into the realities and lack the imagination and drive to deliver the institutional reform real digital delivery will need.
I joined GDS in 2011, entirely new to government and was lucky enough to see much of this transformation from behind the scenes. Now, outside government again, I’d like to do what I can to make sure that digital progress continues. That’s why I’m excited to be joining CIPP as an Affiliated Researcher. I’m hoping to start exploring what worked and didn’t work in the last several years and to figure out whether it’s possible to re-accelerate digital progress inside government. Can we nudge government again? Can we re-ignite the reforming zeal around digital? How do you create the conditions for a revolution like this to take place?
Crucially, how do we make sure that senior leadership; politicians and Civil Servants alike, actually understand what digital technologies can do to transform government services for the better? Can we stop them being distracted by AI and the Blockchain? Can we help them understand how to commission, support and empower effective digital teams? Can we make them realise that, fundamentally, this isn’t about technology, it’s about changing the shape of government.
In the spirit of GDS I plan to be blogging about all this a lot. Watch this space for more details.