Getting with the 21st century: a radical transformation long overdue in government

Look around and you’ll see endless examples of how technology is changing the world. But in government, we see little ambition for this level of dynamism. In the internet era, if states are to meet the rising expectations of citizens and meet the challenges and opportunities of accelerating technological change, their entire operating model must be transformed.

Day-to-day, technology is revolutionising our lives: everything from navigating a new city or managing our money is now real-time and oriented around the needs of users. Yet governments are frequently out of step with this change. Policy, design and delivery too often remain siloed, hampering all three. Citizens struggle with public services that feel like they belong in the past, regularly drowning in paper forms and utility bills for something as simple as proving who you are.

In the UK, modernisation was once a constant theme of any progressive government, but the most recent wave of momentum – when the Government Digital Service, a central unit helping government with digital transformation, was founded – has since been lost. Today, neither the left nor the right have a substantive vision for how government should be remade in the face of the technological revolution.

If governments are to get with the 21st century – already two decades in – they must learn from the pioneers who understand how to unlock the opportunities of this new world and similarly transform how we govern, organise and deliver in the public sector.

To meet the growing demand for radical change, this new approach must be purposeful, enabling and responsive to bring government up to the speed and standards of the internet era.

The crucial lesson is that as the world becomes more complex – with decentralising technology making economies more interconnected and enabling ever-faster social change – progressive goals cannot be met by states living in the past.

As the Centre for Public Impact has argued, governments today should see themselves more as convenors and conductors of a broader environment, setting the rules of the road and providing conditions that shape activity in a purposeful direction. Seeking to control the world must give way to enabling others to fulfil their potential.

Three principles should underpin this new paradigm:

  1. States must be strong and purposeful in their policy priorities. They need to define key national missions to unite the public, private and third sectors behind strategic priorities – such as de-carbonisation or loneliness – with investment, regulation and other levers helping to embed a culture of ground-up experimentation to achieve these goals.
  2. Governments must underwrite the platforms and digital infrastructure required in the modern world. This is about more than moving user-facing services online: secure digital identities, data registers and APIs should be the substrate on which both public and private innovation can flourish. Driving this forward is not easy, with the UK’s history of scepticism about identity systems suggesting that such deep changes might be controversial with little immediate political benefit. But the status quo is to rely on other proofs such as bank statements or utility bills that are even more intrusive. Leading digital states have shown that identity is central to a 21st century approach and illustrated how new, privacy- and security-protecting technologies can mitigate traditional worries.
  3. We need a major reset to the institutions of government focused on making them more responsive to a world defined by accelerating technological change. This should couple dedicated, cabinet-level leadership for digital, data and technology with a new operating model that improves delivery.

In practice, this means fewer silos and far more multidisciplinary teams with the autonomy to execute effectively. Meanwhile ministers shouldn’t be heads of rigid hierarchies with briefs set in stone, but rather champions for a thematic, strategic area around which small teams are loosely joined and that can flex as required.

These reforms would realise a much-needed paradigm shift, where states are radically organised around the citizen and are more effective and enabling of a broader economic and social environment.

In an increasingly complex era where governments cannot anticipate every complication or opportunity up front, it is therefore right to move beyond command and control and seek to decentralise power and deliver through iterative experimentation. However, it’s worth emphasising that many traditionally important values remain.

For example, quasi-autonomous teams would still be accountable to ministers, now acting as portfolio managers with key success criteria to support their decision-making – targets are never a substitute for everything else, but states must know whether they’re meeting their basic objectives. Similarly, coupling the strong vision and economies of scale found at the centre of government – which help to align teams and provide the digital infrastructure required for them to achieve their goals – with devolution of power and reduction of inter-dependencies will enable more effective delivery. Finally, both services and states should organise far more radically around citizens, but we shouldn’t be nervous about championing whoever can meet their needs, be they public, private or charitable, so long as we retain high ethical standards and protect the public interest.

The point is that as the world changes, so should our approach to implementing these values. This doesn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but to deal with the structural questions that are often a shackle on progress, nothing less than purposeful, enabling and responsive radicalism will do.