Five ways to encourage digital disruption in government

My son just turned 6 months old. He was born in the UK which is ranked number one in the UN e-government survey and yet his experience of government and public services to date is far from the digital vision we might hope for.

I’d estimate we have had to fill in about 12 different paper forms so far usually repeating much of the same information – that’s about one form for every two weeks of his life. Not once was I asked to fill in a form online. None of the appointments were scheduled online. There were no apps involved. In fact, the experience from end-to-end is probably not too dissimilar to that experienced by my parents when I was born nearly four decades ago.

Contrast this with the other services my wife and I used around the time of our baby’s birth. We made the trip to the hospital using Uber; when his grandparents came to visit they stayed in an AirBnB; his nappies are delivered via Amazon that reorders the nappies each month and also reminds us to change the size as he gets older; we share photos and updates using WhatsApp and if we want to play him some nursery rhymes we use Spotify.

It is as if my son has been born simultaneously into two parallel universes. In one, the promise of digital technology seems a distant, even impossible dream. In the other, the pace of digital powered transformation can appear breathless.

There is a puzzle here. Clearly the technology is already available to do a wide range of really interesting, useful things. Why then does government seem unable or unwilling to adopt it?

Very simply because this is not a technology problem, it is a disruption problem.

Why disruption is tough

To fully embrace the possibilities that digital technology has to offer organisations have to be willing to stop doing things they feel comfortable with and start doing new stuff that feels odd and risky – which is very tough indeed. “Feeling comfortable with” doesn’t really sum up the organisational challenge because almost everything in an organisation from the way people speak, are rewarded and promoted, the processes and systems, the stories and legends, the job titles and roles are potentially threatened by digital disruption.

The question is whether that disruption will be positive, value-creating and reinforce the best of government and public services or destructive, value-destroying and undermine the role of government in society.

Digital is therefore about far more than making government services a little bit easier to use or a little bit more efficient. It is about ensuring government is fit for purpose and able to thrive in the decades ahead rather than succumb to a negative cycle of failing services, falling trust and a minimal state.

So how can we maximise the potential for positive disruption in government?

  1. Free the data

“Openness” is at the very core of today’s digital mindset. Digital innovators tend to open-source their code, share data and embrace the self-governing nature of the Internet. By embracing openness, and sharing information about services, outcomes, costs and so on, governments are inviting outsiders to develop new solutions to old problems. It is the equivalent of hanging the “disrupt me” sign on the door.

  1. Focus on service users

Government organisations tend to be orientated inwards and upwards. Inwards to the processes and systems they run, and upwards to their political masters. This is why governments tend to be built around silos that don’t necessarily have any meaning to citizens. One of the most powerful things you can do in an organisation like this is to re-orientate people’s attention outwards to the service users and their needs. User-centred design – or human-centred design – can help by putting the policymaker in the shoes of the user and experiencing the world from their point of view.

  1. Specify outcomes not approaches

Governments don’t focus enough on the impact they seek to achieve. That’s why we established the Centre for Public Impact – to encourage a far greater focus on outcomes rather than activities or inputs. Being ambitious about outcomes, and flexible on approach helps to encourage innovation. This is precisely the theory behind Social Impact Bonds and other forms of payment-by-results contracts.

  1. Embed digital talent

To be truly disruptive, digital can’t just be an “add-on”, and people with digital experience need to be embedded throughout the organisation. There are three approaches to rapidly growing the digital capabilities required: hire, borrow or grow-your-own.

The UK’s Government Digital Service hired digital talent from outside government and created a space within which it could act as a disruptive force within government. The US Department of Energy used Topcode, a crowdsourcing platform for computer programming, to borrow more than 900,000 top-tier developers. And the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions decided to grow their own talent by creating a Digital Academy.

  1. Learn and adapt

The traditional approach to IT development in government has been (and largely still is) to use the waterfall approach in which requirements are detailed upfront, which are then turned into detailed specifications, into a detailed development plan and the implemented to arrive at deliverables some time later.

The problem is that it makes two big assumptions about the world. The first is that it is indeed possible to describe everything that you want in advance. In reality the nuances of how a system is likely to work mean that it is very difficult to do this. The second assumption is that things aren’t going to change over the course of the programme. In reality, given the pace of change of technology, user demands and the inevitable changes of policy and direction it is almost certain that the world will feel very different at the end of the programme.  The result is a familiar story of big, costly programmes that somehow fail to deliver.

Governments should instead use agile approaches in which requirements and solutions evolve over time. Through adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continuous improvement agile development methods encourage rapid and flexible response to change.

At the crossroads

Although government was not designed with the digital era in mind, by the time my son reaches 18 in the year 2034 there is no doubt that some administrations around the world will have embraced the disruptive possibilities of digital and totally transformed themselves.

For those that don’t, the danger is that outcomes falter and services get reduced to a minimum core as societies’ faith in government to deliver, and therefore their willingness to pay taxes, is eroded over years of failure and waste.

The difference between the two visions of the future is one of resisting or embracing digital disruption. The five principles I’ve outlined here are not panaceas. They don’t offer easy answers. But I believe that they do provide an outline of how disruption can be embraced rather than resisted.

If we continue to “manage” digital in government then there is a risk that it remains at the edges, a minority sport, and falls far short of its potential. Instead, we must unleash the full disruptive power of digital in government to allow it to do what it has done to every other industry it has touched.



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