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Digital by default: the pros and cons


Dr Mark Thompson, senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, is strategy director of Methods Group

Technology has altered the corporate, commercial and political landscape in a way that is genuinely new, and this calls for a “replumbing” of our public services to make them Digital by Default.

Organisations everywhere are struggling with the implications of an always-connected, competitive and diverse labour force willing to solve problems that traditionally organised corporates are too inflexible or unskilled to tackle competitively.

This is tech-enabled globalisation. It connected cheaper labour to Western markets, allowing them to outsource lower-level white collar tasks using workflow applications that standardised, controlled and measured the outputs.

By and large, such outsourcing did not disturb the basic business models of most organisations. The person answering the phone or performing low-level accounting or legal services might be in Bangalore, but the basic processes remained the same.

Digital replumbing of our public services could yield all sorts of new, joined-up, mobile and responsive services

In the UK, government did not even get this far. Instead of sourcing services more cheaply, it simply outsourced its dated business model to big business – a recipe for rip-offs that created a false market for a few lucky service providers large enough to run the complex systems of corporate government.

Reaching its zenith with the hubris of the abandoned £14-billion NHS National Programme for IT, government IT had become a byword for expense and failure.

Bureaucracies traditionally protect their own and so it was inevitable that the government’s early response to digital would be to ignore it, outsourcing elements of its traditional functions while leaving the basic organisation of those functions undisturbed.

Rather than obsessing about inputs – employees, suppliers, technology, paper, processes – a Digital by Default business model will allow us to scrap much of this, in favour of commissioning outcomes.

This involves consumption of services and capabilities. And when you use Google, you’re not particularly bothered about which version you’re running, when it was last upgraded and where it’s hosted.

Similarly, while a great many face-to-face public services should probably remain within the public sector, there is a realisation that much of the back-office bureaucracy had become self-serving, redundant and highly duplicated.

Furthermore, a digital replumbing of our public services could yield all sorts of new, joined-up, mobile and responsive services with capabilities our existing public corporates, with all their antiquated pipework, are simply incapable of providing.

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude responded to this realisation with the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS), a brave attempt to acknowledge head-on that the UK can neither continue to afford bloated corporate government, nor will a new generation of mobile, tech-aware citizen-consumers put up with its one-size-fits-all services.

Digital government is the embodiment of this realisation. Tony Collins, writing in the next article, is mistaken: Universal Credit as currently delivered is the embodiment of old, corporate government and that is one reason why GDS has withdrawn from it.

The Digital by Default programme has an enormous challenge on its hands in tackling a public service infrastructure that had become addicted to public and private sector corporates. It deserves our support in this, not cynicism.


Tony Collins, former executive editor at Computer Weekly, co-wrote Crash, which found common factors in the world’s largest public and private sector IT-related failures

Few citizens outside government will know what Digital by Default means. But perhaps they’re not meant to. It’s a piece of jargon, a headline for a series of initiatives that the Cabinet Office hopes will energise IT specialists and public servants who want to modernise central government. Under Digital by Default, officialdom has targets, deadlines and standards to meet for new online services.

It’s a good idea in principle. Government services have stood out by their failure to keep up with the digital age. Under Digital by Default citizens will be able to, say, look at their driving licence on their mobile phone or renew their passport online. New services will usually need to be open source or meet open standards.

Some of the best IT brains in government cannot force change in central departments which are largely autonomous

But renewing passports and tax discs online are bare necessities for a public sector that spends around £14 billion on IT. The Cabinet Office knows this, but it has only limited means to effect a major reform of government IT so it may as well make the most of what it can do.

Some of the best IT brains in government work in the Cabinet Office and its Government Digital Service, but they cannot force change in central departments which are largely autonomous. It is the permanent secretaries and ministers in departments who are accountable to Parliament for their failures, not the Cabinet Office. So Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister in charge of reform of government, ends up trying to cajole and persuade Whitehall officialdom, rather than force through change.

This lack of power to effect major reform could be why Cabinet Office officials can sometimes seem to be on the margins of central government. It is as if the Cabinet Office’s IT elite are working on solar-powered tractors in a lone building on the edge of a farm while the rest of the farm – the government departments – are getting to grips with the internal combustion engine.

In 2011 Chris Chant, who was then one of the most experienced IT officials in central government, said: “The vast majority of government IT, in my view, is outrageously expensive, is ridiculously slow or agile-less, is poor quality in the main and, most unforgivably I think, is rarely user-centric in any meaningful way at all.”

Despite various initiatives such as Digital by Default and before it Transformational Government (another vague phrase), central government IT remains largely unreformed. The same small group of “oligarchical” big suppliers rule.

It’s not all bad news. Universal Credit, which is one of 25 exemplar projects under the Digital by Default banner, is genuinely innovative and may eventually simplify the labyrinthine benefits system.

Millions won’t care whether it works or not. According to the Office for National Statistics, only 40 per cent of people living alone aged 65 or over have an internet connection; and that’s not taking into account those who have poor literacy skills, mental health issues or learning difficulties.

My suggestion would be that government sets aside a sum – a fraction of the amounts wasted on past project disasters – to experiment with projects led by smaller enterprises that could deflate Whitehall’s bloated IT. Worthwhile Digital by Default may be, but it’s tinkering around the edges.

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