My book exploring digital, data and technology—and how politicians and policymakers can understand and use them more effectively—is (slowly!) taking shape. It’s currently around 270 pages, but that’s before I give it a severe haircut. Anyhow, here’s a short draft extract from work in progress … I’ll post more raw samples over coming weeks and months. All feedback, as ever, very welcome
By the early 1990s, many governments had recognised the need to modernise, inspired by the growth of the internet and appearance of the World Wide Web. In 1993, the US National Partnership for Reinventing Government set out a bold vision, anticipating a government that:
“Works better, costs less, and gets results Americans care about … [A] government that puts people first, by serving its customers, empowering its employees and fostering excellence”
A few years later, the UK government was exploring similarly ambitious reforms:
Nearly three decades on, this radical reform of government has largely failed to materialise. Instead of integrating digital, data and technology (DDaT) into the heart of government to “enable fundamental changes in the relationship between the citizen and the state”, it’s usually kept outside the tent. Digital teams are left frustrated on the margins, delivering silo services onto a screen—the same work they were doing decades ago. It’s a world away from the exciting political ambition to re-energise and reform democracy itself, redesigning the way government thinks, operates and acts, and its relationship with citizens.
As a result, nowhere have we seen at any meaningful scale new, more effective cross-cutting approaches within and between policy areas such as social care, welfare, tax, poverty, education, and housing; approaches that place people at the centre, listening to and engaging and co-creating with them to rebuild services around their needs, breaking down the artificial divisions between government policies and interventions, and civic action. Political scientist Donald Kettl’s criticisms of the US government—that no party has proven adept at looking around the corner to understand the next issue or succeeded at implementing a long-term vision with cross-cutting solutions—hold true for many others.
As the last three decades illustrate, improving the front-end of government, the presentation tier, will never be “transformational”, and does nothing to help democracy embrace the twenty-first century. It cements into place the long-standing policy and organisational boundaries that cause many of the existing problems—often robbing citizens of dignity and agency whilst increasing failure demand. It’s a problem the UK government described well in June 1996:
“purely applying technology to existing working practices, or at the customer interface, will not achieve the full benefits.”
Yet this is precisely where many digital teams work—at the customer interface, delivering silo departmental services onto a website. Forced to work within existing boundaries, processes and services, they do their best to slap “lipstick on a pig”. But this is not where DDaT belongs and not where it adds true value.
DDaT should be informing and improving policymaking. It can bring a much-needed objective focus on users, evidence, insight, design skills and processes of continuous improvement. Instead, policymaking remains outdated and out of touch, “fundamentally inadequate to address the challenges we face.”
It’s time for governments to move away from using DDaT to stick “lipstick on a pig”. In nearly three decades, it hasn’t delivered the transformation and reform desired—and it won’t. Governments need to embrace DDaT’s strategic role, and integrate it deep within the policymaking process, from conception to delivery and ongoing improvement. DDaT is essential to help politicians and policymakers better understand, analyse, explore, and model policy options—and their impact on people’s lives.
Politicians have long spoken of the need to develop and deliver cross-cutting policies, breaking down the historic and dysfunctional boundaries that prevent better outcomes—improving evidence, data, processes and services. This is where DDaT can play an essential role. It can engage citizens throughout the policymaking lifecycle, providing continuous insight and feedback, helping to inform and improve both users’ services and experiences, and governments’ desired policy outcomes.
For the sake of democracy, it’s time to rediscover and reinvigorate the radical political ambitions of the 1990s. Time to deliver meaningful transformation and reform. And time to move DDaT out of the shadows—and into the heart of government.