e–Government ten years on

Jerry Fishenden is not impressed.

Prompted by a news story that the UK comes 25th out of 66 countries in the quality and reach of its internet connections, he tweeted yesterday morning:

after the billions sunk into UK IT budgets, being 25th in egovt & 25th in broadband is unacceptable

He went on to dig out the Modernising Government white paper of March 1999, e-Government: A strategic framework for public services in the information age published almost exactly a year later,  e-commerce@its.best.uk published half way between them (and yes, there were still a few people then who thought that was a clever way of writing a title) and the UK online annual report for 2000.  He might have added  e.gov:  Electronic government services for the 21st century from September 2000 and even government.direct (Cm 3438, and yes, lower case and the dot are both correct) from 1996, which was the first significant UK government statement about any of this – except by unhappy irony it seems to have left only the faintest online shadow, thus making the copy somewhere at the bottom of my filing cabinet more valuable than I had thought it was.

The conclusion he draws is stark:  there was a lot promised in those documents and not much to show for it. He asks, ‘how do we avoid still being here in another decade?’, and observes, ‘we seem to have forgotten so much we once knew …’.  All of that is a distillation of a much longer post Jerry wrote three weeks ago which is well worth reading.

I had some involvement with the production or consequences of all those documents, except the earliest, so that’s a challenge which hits home.  There is not a shadow of doubt that the predictions being made then about the future of  ‘information age government’ were badly wrong:

We know that we cannot picture now exactly what information age government will look like in 2008… But we can reasonably predict some of the elements which are likely to contribute to achieving the 100% target by 2008. Here are ten drivers of information age government:

  • Household access to electronic services through developments such as interactive TV. But there will also be a very wide range of public access points, with advice on hand.
  • Much more user-friendly, inexpensive, and multi-functional technology as TV, telephones and broadcasting converge.
  • As part of this, less dependence on keyboard skills as remote control pads, voice command, touch screens, video-conferencing and other developments make it easier for users to operate and benefit from new technology. But other skills will be built up in schools, in the workplace, and across the community.
  • Continuing dramatic increases in computing power, and in the power of networked computing, together enabling government services to be delivered more conveniently, accurately, quickly and securely.
  • Wide scale take-up of multi-purpose smartcards, with which citizens can identify themselves, use services, safeguard their privacy and, increasingly, make and receive payments. Cards will also evolve into still more powerful technologies.
  • Government forms and other processes which are interactive, guided by online help and advice, and collect all the necessary information in one go.
  • Smarter knowledge management across government, which increasingly enables government to harness its data and experience more effectively, and to work in new ways.
  • Use of government web sites and other access points as single gateways, often structured around life episodes, to a whole range of related government services or functions.
  • Repackaging of government services or functions, often through partnerships with the private sector, local government or the voluntary sector, so that they can be provided more effectively.
  • Flexible invest to save approaches, where the huge potential of new technology to increase efficiency is used imaginatively to fund better-designed processes.

In part that’s because, as ever, government was coming late to a party where the hangovers were already starting to show.  But we weren’t the only ones. In early 2000, boo.com was still in its prime before its spectacular collapse in May that year – and just earlier this week, Nick Burcher wrote about the new H&M range, explicitly linking what they are succeeding in doing now with what Boo tried but failed to do back then.  I never had anything to do with Boo, but I do remember visiting incubators from Clerkenwell to Martlesham packed full of vibrant companies doomed to failure.

The fact that everybody else was doing it is not much of an excuse of course, particularly since other sectors successfully picked themselves up out of the rubble of the dot com bust and were able to deliver services which were both useful and viable.  Why was it so much harder for government?

There are several answers, none of which has much to do with IT.

  • Customer understanding was very limited.  The penny had begun to drop in some quarters that people were not defined by the business they did with government, but it wasn’t clear what to do with that startling discovery
  • That was because service understanding was very limited.  The early development of UK Online was probably the first serious attempt to follow services through from a user’s perspective, and they kept coming across links in the delivery chain operated by people who had literally never met each other, still less thought about what they did as links in a chain in the first place
  • There was little clarity of what government needed to do itself and what space it needed to create for others, as the not very happy story of online fishing licences – the unexpected first third party online government service which was promptly sat on by the Environment Agency – was to show.  The idea of inviting the world to make good things out of government data would have been fantastic in several senses of the word.

But perhaps most importantly, there was ambition without consequence. The rhetoric of e-government was easy, the substance much harder to make real. Despite the level of expenditure on IT in government, investment in web presence, let alone web services, came in penny packets, often foundering completely when collaboration was needed between different funding streams.  Even much later, the biggest single risk to the success of Directgov in its early years was the hand to mouth nature of its funding.  That was a symptom of a much deeper problem.  There was a lot of demand from politicans (and to some extent senior officials) for there to be e-government, but the demand was for a veneer, it was something to add on to existing business models, rather than something to challenge or replace them.

It is in understanding why that is which I think starts getting us closer to understanding the causes of Jerry’s frustration.  Odd as it may sound, in the early days there was no shortage of e-government solutions; there was an acute shortage of e-government problems.  The solutions were in many cases weak and wobbly compared with what we would aspire to deliver now, and there were some very real (and potentially very expensive) issues about moving data in and out of back end systems which even then were a generation old, but they were there.

And at one level the problems were clear too.  There was, after all, a Big Hairy Audacious Goal which got steadily hairier and more audacious:

In 1997 the aspiration was that

by 2002, 25% of dealings with Government should be capable of being done by the public electronically

In Modernising Government (March 1999) it was:

50% of dealings should be capable of electronic delivery by 2005 and 100% by 2008

Another year later, in March 2000, the Prime Minster announced an accelerated approach:

I am bringing forward our target for getting all Government services online, from 2008 to 2005.

And finally and most importantly, the Cabinet Office PSA  for 2002 recorded the ambition as:

Ensure departments meet the Prime Minister’s targets for electronic service delivery:  100% capability by 2005, with key services achieving high levels of use.

Those words in bold sound innocuous, but represent a critical change of direction.  Putting services online is something producers do.  Using them is something which citizens and customers do – or not, as they please.  This was the point at which the government formally recognised that usability and takeup were critically important and that therefore understanding customers’ needs and preferences, and designing services to meet them were a critical part of what we were about.

To my mind, that is the point at which the concept of e-government self destructs.  Suddenly the challenge to be met was a very different and much more far-reaching one:  the technology is no longer an end in its own right, as the early language of the e-government targets implied, it is a means, powerful but one of many, of delivering a much deeper goal.  The problem was – and to an extent still is – that focusing on that deeper goal required much more radical changes of approach than were generally recognised at the time.  Towards the end of 2002, I answered the question, ‘what is e-government about?’ with five headings:

  • customer focus
  • service integration
  • organisational transformation
  • efficiency
  • … and putting a few services online

That still doesn’t feel far wrong – but the reason for writing it down that way at the time was to counter the near universal perception that it was the fifth one which mattered and that the other four were either distractions or invisible.  A critical part of the progress we have made since then is that the whole list would be seen as self-evident and banal, which is a wholly good thing.

All of that is a long way round of saying that seeing what has happened as a failure of e-government is to come at it from the wrong end (and is why e-government is now such an unhelpful concept).  The problems with online service delivery which remain all too evidently present are symptoms of a slow and painful change of approach which has still got a long way to go.

That doesn’t make Jerry’s questions go away of course.  The sensation of sliding gently down the rankings and, much more importantly, the sensation that we are still a long way short of delivering the ambition we had ten years ago are not good ones.  He is absolutely right to compare the aspiration with the achievement, to wonder what went wrong, and to note that ‘the issues here are, of course, not primarily technical.’  But he continues, ‘which is why the discussion yesterday recognised that governance, architecture and procurement all need to be improved together, and in the context of the role of ICT in the redesign of modern public services not as an end in its own right.’  Yes, they absolutely do, but far more so we need to recognise the need for clarity of service design, for clear leadership of service design and delivery as a function of government, making customer understanding a central part of the job for everybody who has anything to do with any of this – and for all of that to to be done with a sense of openness and a recognition of the value of co-creation.  That’s a revolution of culture, leadership and innovation which wasn’t on the agenda ten years ago.    But on a day when the self-styled top 200 of Whitehall are not only discussing innovation, but cautiously and a bit self-conciously twittering about it, there are some signs of change,  That’s only the beginning and there is still a very long way to go, but the social and technical environment within which government operates will only ever reinforce the pressure.  There is much more we could and should be doing to accelerate that process.  But despite all the frustrations, I remain fundamentally optimistic.

Comments

  1. Excellent history lesson there, well done. I think government have realised at last the potential offered by the ether. Earlier they were only giving IT lip service and spin, hardly any politician knew what they were talking about. The advent of social media and ‘tweeting czars’ has opened their eyes. I sincerely hope they get the message about copper being obsolete for delivering broadband and don’t fall for the BT BET scam. We need everyone to get ‘IT’. Next gen broadband via fibre is essential to deliver IT to all citizens and businesses, to enable our people to use their many skills and talents to build the digital economy of the future.
    If the government don’t get IT soon UKplc will be out of the running…
    chris

  2. Thanks for taking the time to put fingers to keyboard on this. You’ve nailed it by singling out the use-centered epiphany. We remain as optimistic as we did then of the power of the approach.

  3. This is what I’ve spent the last few years working on! Why did I was the first half of this decade flogging my guts out to meet Blair’s vanity target to outcompete at the Lisbon summit! Hopefully, next year will see completion of it as a PhD…

    My main question comes as why moving targets when no baseline or ongoing metric? 25%, 50% and 100% were targets not measures and the whole thing largely wasted money with no thought for the citizen (taxpayer).

    Mick http://greatemancipator.com

    1. It’s actually even messier than that, because the thing counted got changed along the way as well. So in the early days, it was a count of interactions, with a laborious approach which attempted to count all transactions with government – many millions of them, so that online transactions could then be expressed as a percentage of the total. Later on, and rather more manageably, the count was of services (about 450 if I remember correctly) and the percentage was of those services which could be done online. The second method was undoubtedly an improvement on the first, but “service” and “online” are much less clear cut concepts than they first appear, so it was all pretty shaky.

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  5. You’ve picked up on a lot of the background I’m including in my PhD on why I wasted the first half of the decade implementing e-gov – its actually about why we didn’t have a baseline or measures and what they could be. The true history was Blair wanted to out-do others at the Lisbon conference, hence the increase from 50% to 10% overnight which was a complete waste of public money, that we are now having to borrow!

    Mick http://greatemancipator

    One possible measure was public value/social capital hence my posting of the ESRC proposal!

  6. Wonderful post – predictably. Clear-eyed, cool and balanced. But unlike you, I feel more pesimistic. My instinct to be optimistic keeps foundering on layers of complacency and disinterest in many of those charged with leading our public institutions for whom acknowleding the need for the kind of profound and disruptive shifts implied in your later anlaysis are just too professionally and emotionally confronting.

    We talk blithely about the wonders of co-creation (and I am one of the blithest of the lot!) and then witness the miserable torture that many public servants have to endure as their managers and supervisors seek to stop them doing simple things like blogging from work or getting involved in public discussions about policy or service design.

    I think we are miles away from the kind of tectonic shifts in culture, practice and governance that many seem to think we need (and Donald Kettl’s new book is a recent addition to this dispiriting literature) but which few seem either capable or willing to execute.

    1. Martin – an interesting and insightful challenge. I suspect though we may not be seeing the world very differently. My optimism is based on how far we have moved in the last ten years, your pessimism, if I have understood it right, is based on how far there still is to go.

      The focus of this post is primarily what was going on in UK central government in the early part of the decade. It’s already a bit hard to remember what life was like back in those dark ages. There were no blogs. Well that’s not true, there were some, but it was a bit like the early days of Yahoo, you could pretty much list them all. I got my first feed reader in 2001, and I was a very early adopter. My Society was still several years in the future. The tools which now make playing games with government data straightforward did not exist. A ministerial blog would have been laughed at; a departmental twitter account would have been unimaginable. There was not much of an external community of interest at all, either supporting or challenging, with people such as Stephen Coleman being more the exception than the rule.

      But above all, the complacency and disinterest you refer to was an order of magnitude stronger then than now, in part because it was based on genuine ignorance and the absence of any experience of web services of any kind. This was a time when it was possible for people to have extended conversations about the exotic excitement of having bought a plane ticket online.

      I am not for a moment suggesting that the golden age has arrived. My optimism is that the direction of travel is basically the right one and that I cannot see it fundamentally changing. Looking back a decade, we have come a huge distance. Looking back a month or a year, the pace of change remains painfully slow.

      1. That’s all very fair. My original comment was perhaps a tad over gloomy, doubtless reflecting the very late hour at which it was written.

        Your rehearsal of the changes we’ve seen in the past 10 years and the relatively quick uptake, at least in some parts of the public sector, of the new tools of Web 2.0, is a timely reminder that undiluted pessmisim is not warranted. I can go now, for example, to the main website of the Victorian Government in Australia and find, as a matter of coure, a ‘rate this site’ button as well as twitter feeds and a couple of RSS options. At that level, at least, you can’t deny evidence of progress.

        So why the pessmism? Well, because there are still levels of resistance to some of the more interesting potential changes that Web 2, especially, could bring about. And it is also still possible to witness discussions about the need for more energetic and sustained reformation in government agencies (structure, systems, skills etc)whihc are full of overblown rhetoric and scant evidence of genuine follow through. I think also too much of the wokr that is being done – like the ‘rate this site’ button and the RSS feed on the Victorian Government home page – comes without any decent analysis of whether or not it is achieving anything. What exactly do users of the Victorian Govt website get from the added features? Is their experience of government and their interaction with the governing process any the better for these relatively superficial additions?

        I was part of an wonderful discussion this morning between the Australian Government Task Force on Government 2.0 (www.gov2.net.au) – of which I am a member – and Beth Noveck, author of “Wiki Government” and currently Deputy CTO in the White House for the Obama open and transparent government strategy. Among many notable insights, Beth made the point, in response to a heartfelt question from one of our public service Task Force members about the difficult of overcoming resistance to change inside the bureaucracy, that in a large and distributed enterprise like government, it was always possible to find plenty of people willing and keen to be involved in true, ground-breaking change. The task is to find them, bind them together in new communities of influence and practice and then highlight the great results they achieve. In other words, Beth Noveck’s advice seemed to be to ‘accentuate the positive’, I guess and and the risks of overdoing the pessmism.

        Makes sense…

      2. Now look guys. you are both extremely well educated and you surely know that disinterest is to do with being impartial and quite different from lack of interest. Maybe all textual programmes should automatically query words related to disinterest and check whether the author means something else. Or do you think we should just give up on this word?

        1. Ouch. Fair cop. I blame him, he started it ;)
          And no, we shouldn’t give up on disinterest, it’s a very good word, with a very necessary meaning.

        2. Oh dear – trying to write too quickly. Or maybe I’m just not as well educatec as you think (or i may like to think). So right (both of you) – ‘distinterest’ is such an important word in a world which has largely forgotten what it means or why it matters. Thanks for the upbraid.

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