The Missing Reinvention in Government IT

Two weeks ago I wrote about how IT in Government is being reinvented, driven by four main factors – real innovation, rejection of the SI model, relentless commoditisation and radical transparency.  There is, though, a missing reinvention, and that is what to do with applications?

There are essentially two categories of applications in government – those the customer sees and uses, and those that are used only by internal staff. Most departments have at least hundreds of the latter, some even have thousands.  Sometimes one application, Self Assessment for example, has one in each category.

The declaration of “digital by default” means that there is a looming shift where thousands of applications are going to be retired.  If you don’t receive paper forms any more, then you don’t need an internal application to process them, you don’t need a rules engine inside the firewall to validate and verify what has been entered and you don’t need armies of people processing that data.

This alone will certainly class as a total reinvention of government.  There are, though, plenty of issues ahead.  If the Government Digital Service is truly going to make a difference, it will soon grapple with transactions and, there, it will find that things really do start to get ugly.  Tinkering around with content and search is all well and good, but opening up the guts of government is where the fun really starts.  I say fun only in the sense that when the job is done, someone will look up and say “well, now, wasn’t that fun!”

Departmental applications have not been built in a way that they can be easily exposed.  Rules are not always clear and available (some are indeed quite secret), breakpoints that would allow the citizen to see the progress being made generally don’t exist (I can already visualise the screams as the application staff say “wait, you want a progress bar for your benefit claim?”), data is certainly dirty at best and really quite messy at worst and many of the applications tie in to dozens of other applications – all in all it is not so much the “citizen journey” as the “citizen meander down a long and complex path”.  GDS may well find that the best advice that they get as they start work is “well, I wouldn’t start from here”.

Which, actually, may be the best way to do this half of the reinvention.  Simply start afresh.  Build a new world of applications – in the style of Egg as we would have said 10 years ago – and move people onto those, severing their links with the old world.  At some point, you get to turn off those old applications and everyone gets better service as a result.  But that sounds quite slow.

At some point I can see a decision being made about who holds the IT budget for applications.  At the moment it’s all in the departments.  If it’s true that the current government IT budget is about £13bn (estimates range all the way up to £20bn) and that 80% goes on BAU, then the 20% will soon be moved to Mike Bracken at GDS so that he can start the reinvention.  And then, not long afterwards, a good chunk of the other 80% (less the austerity discount that is being demanded of all departments) will go his way too.  I suspect that Aviation House isn’t nearly big enough to house the team that will be needed to pull this off.  Which means that a different strategy will be called for – one that embraces the principles in the Government’s own ICT strategy regarding using SME suppliers and so on.

The other half of the application reinvention is much harder to call.  What to do with all the applications that are used in house?  If all the citizen facing work goes digital then plainly there’s a need for a big general ledger in the middle that counts all of the money going in and out, but what about the other systems – the ones that dispense grants, manage cases (be they criminal, probation or immigration-related), track passenger movements and so on.

The usual rallying cry for these is “shared services” but, as we’ve seen, everyone wants to share services provided it’s their services that they’re sharing and not the other way round.  The NAO’s recent report on Shared Services in the Finance / Payroll / HR world show that this is still very much the problem.

The approach above – rebuilding them and migrating – isn’t likely to work.  The infinite variety of business processes and the vast number of those applications would make that a very expensive job and one that would take at least a geological age.

This problem could be solved, perhaps, with the massive outsourcing that government is just starting to look at again – where, this time, it isn’t the IT that goes out but the business processes.  The new providers would then be free to invest in new platforms and capabilities to make them more efficient and cheaper to operate, sharing the benefits with shareholders (be they traditional ones or the employees themselves within mutuals), with government or just keeping it all for themselves (can anyone say A4E?).

This second half is the next big problem and the reinvention that will truly transform government.  It’s also the hardest reinvention.

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