What was the political philosophy behind the digitisation of the public sector in the UK in the 2010s? Dr Antonio Weiss, Digital State affiliated researcher at the Bennett Institute, shares insights from his experiences working for the government during this transitional period.
The 2010s marked a notable discontinuity in the politics of state reform in the UK: one where ‘digitisation’ went hand-in-hand with an agenda of public sector efficiency whilst at the same time state digital capabilities were rebuilt. Having worked for the Government Digital Service (GDS) and many UK government departments in this period, I want to share some, still embryonic, reflections on the guiding political philosophy behind the UK government’s digitisation approach of the past decade. This is a topic I would like to tackle in depth during my time at the Bennett Institute, so comments are welcome.
With this in mind, below are five mantras I frequently heard during the 2010s:
1. “Government as a start-up”
There was nothing novel in GDS – a small, central unit setup in early 2011 designed to push through the government’s new digital agenda – bemoaning the complexity of the UK machinery of government. This was a common complaint similar bodies made in decades prior. What was new was when Mike Bracken, former Executive Director of GDS told Computer Weekly in 2011 that government had previously “lacked delivery capacity [and] the pace of change is very slow…[and so] we want to adopt the behaviour of a start-up”. The global influence and standing of Silicon Valley, which embodied a new, disruptive “start-up” culture of agile working methods, was foremost in thinking as the culture of GDS was set.
2. “Services as good as the private sector”
A salient feature of New Labour’s public sector reforms was the desire to avoid that “large numbers of middle classes [refuse to use] state services” as Tony Blair explained in 2003. In GDS, a common refrain was the need to make online, digital services by the state that kept pace with the expectations that users had from the “private sector”. There was an overriding ambition to match, or exceed, the design standards of services by Apple, Google or Facebook. This was an important continuation of New Labour’s thinking, applied to the digital era.
3. “Era of big suppliers and contract lock-in is over”
From the late 1970s onwards, Britain contracted out to suppliers the vast majority of its strategic IT programmes; taxation, social security benefits, the NHS all underwent major change with the assistance of third parties. From 2010 onwards there was a backlash, with Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude speaking openly and scathingly of poor value for money from IT suppliers. Major procurement changes followed suit, and GDS played a leading role in ensuring central government departments complied. Alongside this, as GDS built up in-house state technical capability, the option of building in-house became the unofficial default option – a radical departure from previous IT approaches.
4. “Simpler and cheaper”
GDS was born out of a review undertaken by Martha Lane Fox, founder of the travel website Lastminute.com, which reported in October 2010 to Francis Maude on the future of the forerunner to the single website gov.uk, Directgov. Post-financial crisis and amidst the coalition government’s focus on austerity and deficit reduction, Lane Fox’s blueprint for UK digital plans set out to demonstrate “how efficiencies can best be realised through the online delivery of public services.” Much of the outward facing rhetoric of GDS was to put “users first”, but there should be no mistaking that facilitating public sector expenditure reduction was a big part of the digital agenda too.
5. “Government as a platform”
Around the mid-point of the decade, and once GDS had proven its credentials of delivery through the single portal gov.uk, it sought to determine a new strategy. Through this process, GDS’ vision of ‘government as a platform’ emerged: a cross-government programme of common components, service design patterns, platforms and registers. This view of the state had a diverse ideological heritage: in part from the technology writer, Tim O’Reilly, who foresaw “government as a platform” as “government stripped down to its core”; in part from the Victorian concept of government “registries”, such as the Land Registry; and also in part from the platformisation of sectors by disruptions such as Uber and AirBnb. These diverse strands of thought had a common theme: a reduced, streamlined, joined-up state apparatus, where the power of the state would be diminished to, ostensibly, empower citizens to transact with the state as little, and as effortlessly, as possible.
What did this all add up to politically? In certain ways, the 2010s represented a continuation of themes from the ‘New Public Management’: efficiency, value for money, and customer/citizen preferences. But significant changes took place too. Where the 1990s and 2000s saw a rocketing up in IT consultancy expenditure by the state, the 2010 saw a sharp retraction, as internal digital and technical capabilities were built up to minimise reliance on private sector suppliers. Performance measurement and targets became less important than demonstrating that “user needs” had been met. And government departments were encouraged to disrupt themselves using start-up style methods such as agile ways of working, rather than relying on consultancies to do so. The overriding mantra of “user-centricity” boldly suggested that the state had previously been an obstacle in people’s lives. It was now time for it to get out of the way and, in the words of Martha Lane Fox, “empower, and make life simpler, for citizens”.