Thinking in Code. Iterating in Public. Fast forward to Government in 2030 and the End of ‘Digital’

Civil servants and law makers must change their role, work style and vision if the government is to digitally transform its relationship with citizens and taxpayers. This is the golden nugget I took away from a recent conversation with Frank Huynen and Yves Vanderbeken, both chief technologists at HPE. A recent academic study and a speech by a senior civil servant both reflect the need for metamorphosis in the corridors of power.

A research report from Brunel University London, published in June this year, recommends a complete turnaround in the way governments and researchers think about how digital technologies can transform the public sector. The paper entitled; Digital Government: Overcoming the Systemic Failure of Transformation, dishes out some harsh criticism, not least for the government’s predilection for putting digital front ends on traditional ways of doing things.

The working paper, which invites feedback from practitioners in the field, argues that the only coherent way to achieve any real digital transformation is to embed the potential of technology in the instruments that make governments’ policies real. “Policy instruments are the tools that governments choose from to intervene in the economy, society and environment to make change, such as licences, information campaigns and more tangible things such as public services and infrastructure,” it states.

Related Article: The Data Inspired Government Needs Fuel and Vision

This criticism was also voiced by Huynen and Vanderbeken, who talk about the disconnect between law makers and the legislative process on the one hand, and the potential impact of real-time, big data on the other. Technology shouldn’t be implemented to support laborious legislation, but needs to be embedded in the very process: for example, environmental sensory data should inform policy about city pollutants.

Happily, there are thinkers in the senior echelons of government who recognise the need for digital to become the instrument, among them Stephen Foreshew-Cain. As executive director of the Government Digital Service (GDS) he might be expected to be a visionary, and spoke on the topic of ‘What Government Might Look Like in 2030’, at TechUK’s Public Sector conference. As he pointed out, that time is only two general elections away!

He predicted that in 2030, policymaking will be service design and service design will be making policy, and the thinking will be done in code. Ideas and implementation will be much closer together and there likely won’t be any new ideas without some sort of implementation and this will be iterated in public. “By 2030, policymaking will be minimally designed and built as a framework which allows flexibility and feedback, not as a fait accompli,”  Foreshew-Cain explained.

Feeding into this, public consultation will be massively changed, he continued. “We’ll have smaller, rapid, frequent consultation. We will be working not in a sequence, but a cycle. The old-style, top-down, predictive policymaking model that identifies the ‘big idea’ and doesn’t consider service delivery as the best source of evidence on what works and what doesn’t, just isn’t going to cut it.”

He added that: “By 2030, we won’t talk about digital this or digital that, because everything will be digital. 
I’m not claiming that we’ll have reached the magical, mythical paperless society. I don’t think that will ever happen, to be honest… But the vast majority of services will simply be digital. They will have been designed that way, because digital by default, like ‘users first’, will be the accepted way of doing things.”

Making all of this possible will be a new, more diverse, digitally skilled government workforce. Staff will need to understand the internet, data and users – right across the civil service, not just in teams of technologists. The best way to do that is to make sure that the diversity of the civil service reflects the diversity of the people we are here to serve, argued Foreshew-Cain.

Culture may be the hardest thing to change in governments, but civil servant thinks it is possible: a mix of accountability of public servants and the power of data will provide the impetus.

Helen Beckett

Author: Helen Beckett

Helen Beckett is the Community Manager of the Business Value Exchange. She has been a writer and editor for over 20 years and takes a particular interest in the challenges facing the CIO in today’s business climate.