Stop. Rewind. Play

The day after the last election, in 2001, I was the first speaker on stage at a conference, to be followed by Steve Ballmer. I remember talking then that “e” as in “e-government”, “e-auctions” etc had probably run its course and that the latest trend was clearly “x”; as in “xbox”, “windows XP”, “Apple OS X”, “XML” – and, because William Hague had resigned about 10 minutes before I stepped on stage, “an X leader of the Tory party following an x-lection”. Suffice to say, Steve was a lot funnier than I was.

I even put up a few slides to walk the audience through how joined up government might arise, what the obstacles would be and how we might get around them. You’ll see (if you’ve got good eyes – that slide looks very small) that I was into the “far away sunset” background for slides. Visionary stuff and all that.

Odd, 4 years on, that things should be so similar. The election was notable, to me and others excited by the potential for online government, for a complete absence of any talk about “e-government”. I haven’t seen a trace of debate about “2005, 100% online” – that may be because it’s assumed that victory has been declared and there’s no need for a debate about it, or, perhaps more likely, no-one really wanted to talk about it because it wasn’t mainstream enough – 10 years after Amazon and Netscape launched, e-government still isn’t the default!

Nick Montagu, former chairman of the Inland Revenue (and someone I’m proud to call a friend), commented as much in a recent speech at the SOCITM Spring conference:

“My worry is that joined-up government has slipped from not just the rhetoric but from the priorities [of government],” he said. “We haven’t heard a lot about it in the second term. It’s a complicated business, about changing attitudes of ministers, officials at both local and central levels and most importantly the citizen, but it is a battle well worth waging to win.”

“Think what life would be like if everyone had a single account with government and all those transactions were netted off against each other and the net sum automatically credited or debited to the bank account. The savings would be massive, in terms both of the transactions themselves and of the prevention of fraud.”

“But what’s really needed is a reinvention of government which, I believe could dwarf [Sir Peter] Gershon’s £35 billion [in his efficiency review for the government] or [David] James’ £35 billion [in his efficiency review for the Conservative party].”

“It’s quite worrying that if you look at the present Cabinet, the level of e-literacy is pretty small. Thought leadership should come from government.”

The esteemed member of the civil service that brought me into government often said, usually after I had railed (again) about the lack of desire in that department to join up with other departments, “Show me the line of people waiting to join up and I’ll sign up now”. He was right then and he continues to be right. Sadly, few departments want to join up. It requires too many changes to be made. In a 2002 paper on joined up government I wrote of the problems that had to be overcome if there was to be any hope of technology helping things join up:

  • Departments have yet to align their requirements. Government departments have long been used to the luxury of customising individual systems and applications to their precise workflow or detailed mode of operation – making it difficult to draw out common requirements and, therefore, to realise the potential of joined up development and delivery.
  • Departments are not ready. Not all departments are ready to implement their e-government programme. Integration can sometimes be achieved in steps but may also require a more mature department for the full possibility to be realised. Adoption rates vary, as does use of the functionality available.
  • Departments are used to having control of their IT. Systems can be delivered at their own pace, subject to Ministerial and other commitments. [Joining up] forces a collective delivery cycle where one change may impact several departments. This can be both good and bad – it can accelerate delivery for some, but it can conflict with other projects for others.
  • Departments are used to having control of their [own] IT supplier. They want to know that there is a chain of command, with a chain that can be yanked at all levels.
  • IT suppliers compete against [joined up government]. For many suppliers, the idea of government working together means that there is less money spent overall, which can result in strong resistance from the supplier community. Suppliers, however, are coming to realise that joining up government is of high overall benefit – more standardisation means more opportunities to add value, and more opportunity to provide integration services.

That first bullet hides a 1001 sub-reasons. There may be many reasons at a business, data and technology level, why alignment is not possible. Data is often at the core – “customers” are not identifed in a consistent way, e.g. a corporation may run many payrolls for PAYE purpose but have only one entity as far as VAT is concerned; council tax payable by a resident has no relation to Self Assessment paid by the same resident etc. Those issues remain and, for Nick’s “single account” (or department of give and as I believe I called it in February 2003) to succeed, they will need to be overcome. And after all of those “micro” issues are resolved – because they’re the ones that government departments will put as their first defence – the macro reasons can be confronted: legislation is drafted at a departmental level, there are no incentives, ministers seek to control what’s in their domain, accounting officers can only be accountable for what is within their own department, control will be decreased and, ultimately, the shape of the civil service will be redefined and those who have spent 25 years climbing to the top of the old shape are unlikely to want to move to a shape that they don’t understand. It’s possible that the next head of the civil service, rumoured to be Gus O’Donnell, presently at the Treasury and the man who put the C into HMRC, will be able to make a difference – after all, he’s already shown willingness to lower the drawbridges on some fortresses.

Surprisingly, the Conservatives didn’t seize on the £6 billion-odd pounds spent so far on e-government to say that it was a waste. Perhaps because of that, the Labour party didn’t feel the need to defend what’s been achieved – and point to the IR’s Self Assessment service (more than 1.5 million people last year), or the 40% of driving tests that are booked online. Could it all have been done for less? I’d like to think so – but that shouldn’t take away from what has been achieved to date, given the obstacles that faced e-government early on and, especially now, those that continue to face it.

From here on though, the Head of the e-Government Unit (who has followed his own course away from the “e” to create an Office of the CIO – a far more comprehensible title, at least to Corporate Britain) has a bit of a battle ahead to renew interest in joining up and create a vision that can last through to the next election. From where I sit today, things look pretty tough. There’s a lot to do.

A revolution is needed. Maybe even a 1789 revolution – without the actual head knocking off bit – where the aristocracy of government are thrown out and the peasants take charge. Those who have not grown up through the ranks of it will not appreciate the way it was and so could design new structures. Ministers plainly want to see change, they want to see dramatic reform; but that doesn’t come by starting where we are. I have a sense that people are afraid to volunteer for the scale of change is needed. The status quo is a powerful magnet and it keeps people where they are.

So let’s start somewhere different; let’s create structures – initially virtual ones – that are centred around the customer, where the incentives for staff are geared to delivery in a timely way of benefits, resolution of cases where alimony is outstanding and repayment of tax to all those who are due. The potential is enormous and partnerships between the citizens and government, between technology and process could just make it happen.

With a majority of 64, is there enough gumption to do it? I think so – it might be a bluff with just a low pair, but it’s worth raising a few times to see who calls.

One thought on “Stop. Rewind. Play

  1. Absolutely – couldn\’t agree more. And surely the virtual structure concerned is Directgov, where departmental silos (at least from the user perspective) are replaced with common sense categories and roles?While the site isn\’t quite there yet, it\’s also on track to become the kind of \’\’ you envisaged (check out the Money franchise, say).

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