Can’t stop this thing we’ve started

Another good comment on an earlier post:

So there are vast numbers of broken processes in government – processes that have been broken for years because of bad thinking, poor design, terrible IT delivery, an over-reliance on paper, overly complex legislation, too much tinkering at the edges without structural reform and so on.

Why are we even entertaining throwing good money after bad with all this egov nonsense?

Rather than building crap websites that front crap everything, why don’t we give the budget to more needy causes and tell the geeks in suits to go dive dive in the lake?

Why indeed. A good question with no simple answer. When I used to do chalk and talk sessions on e-government (before I figured out powerpoint), I’d often start by drawing a line on the whiteboard from one side to the other. I’d announce that this was the scum line – I’m not sure it was me that came up with that description, it might have been SimonF. I’d then draw government silos underneath the line, and citizens interacting through the web cloud above the line.

Government thinks that it’s on the clean side of the scum line and that the line is there to keep everything grubby out. Citizens think that they’re all clean and shiny and the real mess is on the other side of the line, in government. The trick is to make both sides see the mess and then figure out how to clean it up – data and process, process and data, both sides of the line.

My original pitch for e-government in the UK was that a few, well designed sites and services would buy the departments time to sort out their backends. There was no way to drive e-government bottom up – that is, no time to clean up the back ends and join things up sensibly and strategically. But, some artful front end services could create the illusion of a joined up government and whilst the illlusion was being maintained, departments could update their 20 year old systems, their even older processes (after all, much of the computerisation of the 80s simply automated whatever process was already in place – paving the cowpath they call it now I think), and clean up their data (and, if we were lucky, the process of registering online and using services would give us up to date information and data a piece at a time, because if people tried to use services and found they couldn’t, they might make a call and sort out the data discrepancy, e.g. an old address or whatever).

That was a pretty snappy plan at the beginning – in March 2000 or so when it was hatched. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Funding has gone, in capital terms, to sexy new projects and maintenance costs for back ends have continued to rise.

The eGU is hanging its hat now on the prospect of holding back 10% of the £14 billion spent on government IT each year and redirecting that to new services that are shared across departments. If it were me, I’d impose a legislative freeze for 2 years – no new taxes, no changes that weren’t table changes, no new tax credits, no changes to benefits administration and I’d use that time to race to create new business units that were charged with running things from the ground up in a new way. Then I’d migrate people in chunks from the old world to the new world. Sounds simple, fraught with problems and risks though, and unlikely anyone would buy it. That said, I don’t see a queue of other ideas that could achieve the same result.

2 thoughts on “Can’t stop this thing we’ve started

  1. This post reminds me of a comment I once heard from a (rather rueful) UK banker. He said: \”Banks cling fondly to the notion that they have a \’relationship\’ with the retail client. The client, on the other hand, perceives it as a sequence of unwanted and largely irksome transactions.\”For all the talk of \’citizen as stakeholder\’, I rather think that\’s how most of them view their interactions with the public sector.

  2. Now that John Suffolk has sorted out IT in the Home Office, and left a big queer smile on John Reid\’s face, let\’s see him rip into this bigger government challenge and sort it aht.Where you betting your smart money Alan? Above or below the scum line?

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