There is no such thing as the government

25 November 2010

In the UK, we appear to have a government. It looks like a government, often talks like a government, and sometimes behaves like a government.  But you can’t really understand the way government works until you realise that it doesn’t exist.

Bits of government exist, of course, lots of them. Sometimes we call those bits ‘departments’ and sometimes we call them other things. Sometimes they co-ordinate and collaborate. When No10 rings, they answer the phone and listen attentively and at the very least will appear to do something which can be described as a response. But government as a whole is at least as much archipelago as land mass.

It can take a while to spot that. It took me years. It took me to the Cabinet Office where, I deluded myself, I would get access to the levers of power, and would be able to make the world a better place as a result.

The levers of power (and the power brokers’ kettle)

The delusion is not in thinking that there are levers of power. There most assuredly are. There are rows of them, with brass handles and the patina of age, polished daily until you can see your face in them. When you move one, there is a satisfying clunk and a little bell rings. The levers are connected together in complex ways and there are people who have made it their life’s work to understand those linkages, and to pull the levers in patterns and sequences which send clear messages in exactly the right direction.

No, the delusion is to think that those levers are necessarily connected to anything, that they directly control any machinery, that anybody hears the little bell ringing in the corner, that brass and polish are correlated with consequence.

And that matters. It matters because once you recognise that fact, you can start to do things differently.  People do, of course, recognise it at the level of caricature I have described here and nobody will admit to believing that they can get things done simply by pulling the levers of power. But inactions speak louder than words and the myth of the lever is harder to eradicate than any of us like to admit.

There are two ways forward from there. One is to connect up the levers; the other is to recognise that they are not connected and to find other ways of getting things done. I don’t particularly mind – at least for the purposes of this post – which route is chosen, nor do I think that it necessarily has to be the same route for every decision made in government. The essential thing, though, is not to imagine that anything will come from installing an additional set of unconnected levers or investing in better quality brass polish.

With that in mind, let us turn to the review of Directgov prepared by Martha Lane Fox for Francis Maude, which needs to be read in conjunction with the essential gloss provided by Tom Loosemore (and do read Steph’s post while you are there).  This is not a post about that review: it’s something I am directly involved with, so I am not going to discuss the specific content and recommendations here. Neil Williams has both his own analysis and some good links to other people’s if that is what you are after. In any case, what matters for this post is not so much what is in the report as what is outside it, the context into which it has dropped.

The idea of joining up government services by bringing them together online has been with us for years. In some ways a lot has been achieved, but pretty much nobody is satisfied with where we have got to. I have written at some length on e-government ten years on and I won’t repeat that here, but I strongly suspect that we have often looked for solutions in the wrong place. Somehow the ambition has always comfortably outstripped progress. The temptation is always to blame the digital delivery (e-government, online services gov 2.0, call it what you will), as the new thing which was supposed to achieve miracles, but has unaccountably failed to do so. That’s not completely wrong, but it is at best only half the story. The missing levers of power provide the other half. To some extent, joined up online services can cover up the essential fragmentation of government, but they cannot actually defragment it, and it is unreasonable to expect them to do so.

As a demonstration of the importance of the issue, it’s well worth reading Tom Watson’s reflections on the nature of the problem, why the last government didn’t fix it, and what would be needed to sort it out now. I recognise his diagnosis, though I don’t altogether agree with it, but it is his prescription which is relevant here. He suggests that bringing in the A team would make the critical difference:

For, as Martha rightly points out, to achieve the changes required to make engaging with HMG online a simple, pleasurable experience requires a massive change in culture and technical expertise.

And Francis is also humble enough to know that he’s going to need the flair and talent of Britain’s best web people. He needs the A-team.

If I were Francis, I would draft in Lib Dem Lord, Richard Allan, of facebook to the team. I’d steal Tom Loosemore and Matt Lock from Channel 4. And I’d throw in that well know anarchist and inventor of www.theyworkforyou.com, Stefan Magdalinski. I’d demand that the BBC lend me Tony Ageh and Bill Thompson.

And to finish off the A-team, I’d persuade David Cameron to put Martha in the House of Lords. Make her the minister for digital engagement and let her run the team. My God, they’d change Britain for the better. Good luck to them. And well done Francis.

That’s not a bad suggestion. They are all good people, and any one of them, let alone all of them, would bring energy, insight and experience. But I don’t think it solves the problem, it’s a one last heave approach. We need (as well, not necessarily instead) to recognise that providing a government web service when there isn’t a government is an intrinsically difficult thing.  The solution requires a better government as well as a better web service.

I am not for a moment suggesting that there is no point in doing anything until the whole machinery of government has been restructured. That’s not going to happen, and no good will come from waiting for it. But it does mean that there are some important questions which are well worth exploring, not because they will ever have final answers, but because we need there to be better answers than we have now. Three to start us off, all closely related, might be:

  • Whose is the cutomer?
  • Who is the agent of whom?
  • Whose fault is it when it goes wrong?

There is no such thing as the government.  But there could be.

Picture by Ingy the Wingy, licensed under creative commons.

13 comments

And another thing to chuck into this very excellent post is one thing everyone seems to forget. There is no need for a rush, because half the country can’t get a decent broadband or mobile connection, with a third of the population on sub meg or even dial up.
We can’t continue to kid ourselves that a phone network can deliver next generation access.
So please when you design your joined up web don’t use any photos. or videos. or we won’t be able to load it without timeouts.
Theres no such thing as an infrastructure. But there could be. If we could pull a lever and level the playing field, many would invest if the copper cabal got sorted.
just sayin.
as usual. ;)
chris.

by cyberdoyle on 25 November 2010 at 9:29 pm. #

LOL at the levers gag.

I thought I had answers to all this, but suddenly I just feel very tired. Will reflect on it tomorrow….

by William on 25 November 2010 at 10:02 pm. #

I worked for Directgov earlier this yet (and met Martha while I was there). This isn’t about Directgov but about two other experiences I had in the public sector.

One was a project in which a number of high ranking government IT specialists (neither now in the same posts) had implemented a secure portal at a cost of 20K. I put it onto another platform for free and if they wanted to keep it, it would have cost approx £500, would have been significantly more secure and and a lot more functional. The demo blew people away.

The other was a project to get overall costs for a CMS down by a factor of 75%. I pointed out that an off the shelf solution would have got costs down by a factor of 8000 (eight thousand, yes your really did read that) rather than a factor of 4. The response was “very interesting but we can’t do that this time around, maybe next time”.

The big problem is that you have really capable people like John Suffolk at the top who I hold in very high regard yet there is no real teeth at the CIO council to actually enforce policy. There are CIO champion solutions, but depts are free to go their own way.

Personally I think Directgov should become the Government’s central web agency, take over all the web facing activities of every government department immediately and without delay and maybe leave a few BAs in each government department to liase with the customers. Government should as much as possible buy off the shelf rather than insisting everything must be bespoke, aim for projects of 6 months max duration to cut the complexity and sort out all the back end transactional stuff rather than having it here there and everywhere. Directgov is a very strong brand but you can see from the DNS addresses and subdomains that a lot of it is white labelling – you only get the true economies of scale when you consolidate the team behind the scenes, and the infrastructure. Consolidating the front end user experience is important, but it is just a small part of the big picture.

And I’m still waiting for my single sign on using Government gateway rather than an obscure random collection of digits as a username.

Oh and PLEASE get with the 20th century and bin IE6 in government. It’s become a standing joke – the costs of maintaining separate networks so that people can install a browser designed this millenium and can do their jobs is an unneccesary overhead we wouldn’t need to pay for if the IE6 hangers on updated to modern and more productive (and safer) software.

by Craig Cockburn on 25 November 2010 at 10:26 pm. #

I have enormous sympathy with your frustration, but I think your suggested solution really underlines the point I am trying to make. The question is why something on the lines you describe hasn’t already happened – and the answer is not fundamentally a technical one.

by Public Strategist on 26 November 2010 at 8:12 am. #

Stefan, very inciteful post and I echo your view here. We have a term called government but it cannot be compared to that of a large company, I may be wrong but I do not know of any company that needs legal powers to share information. Bringing motivated people will help but we have had ‘a’ team people before and this hasn’t solved the fundamental issues. Creating a thin layer and trying to provide monkey bridges across each part of government is not going to deliver the joined up vision. The key issue is that although there may be a ‘spirit’ for joined up services there is no ‘body’. By body I mean mechanisms similar but not quite to your levers. The other key issue as you rightly point out is ownership who is accountable for a joined up government? Until these things are resolved we are going to expel a lot of energy trying to make a disparate set of organisations look like a whole.

by Sharon on 26 November 2010 at 9:05 am. #

[...] 2] Public Strategist and Andrew [...]

by Profoundly non-trivial: Martha Lane Fox review of Directgov on 26 November 2010 at 11:04 am. #

Brilliant post. Incredible eye opening post. Really made me think. So, but wrong conclusion. There can never be a single .gov. Don’t try and make it. Won’t work. All tech guys, me included have walked into companies that want one solution for their whole company. You then have to try and shoe horn something across different processes and cultures and it just doesn’t work on a company of any size. From the outside all companies look like a single entity but they’re not. Same with government. Stop looking at it as a single entity. All IT projects in government have failed because it’s just too big. So, localize. Push out responsibitly closer to delivery. Make the decision chain shorter and accept that minister can’t do everything. Let these smaller units them come up with their own online solutions or even just supply APIs and let the private sector do it. Sorry, think your’e on to a loser. Great post though. Thanks.

by Wo on 23 December 2010 at 11:23 am. #

Thanks for your positive words, I am glad you enjoyed the post. But I am not sure that you are disagreeing with me in the way you think – ‘stop looking at it as a single entity’ is the core message. There is a lot to be said for devolving solutions as you suggest. But I don’t think that can be the whole answer: a world where the NHS has 2,873 live websites is as flawed in its own way as a world with an attempt at a huge single solution to everything. As with so much, the hard bit is getting the balance right.

by Public Strategist on 23 December 2010 at 11:57 am. #

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