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 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 therefore requires a better government as well as the 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.