King Canute was buried at sea

King Canute is famous for thinking that by his royal command, he could hold back the incoming tide. King Canute is famous for demonstrating the limitations of even royal power by showing that he could not hold back the incoming tide. His attempt to show humility and the limits of power became a story of his arrogance and his deluded belief that his power was unlimited.

Early in the days of online government, the focus was on the percentage of different services which could be done online. As it turned out, that wasn’t a particularly smart way of measuring progress, let alone of setting targets. For if the target were to be the availability of every service online, that must include deeply obscure services, used by tiny handfuls of people, in circumstances least conducive to online activity.

Burial at sea started to get used as the limit case example, the reductio ad absurdum of service based targeting. It showed not that it was or should be a high priority to make burial at sea an online service, but that a literal interpretation of a 100% target probably wasn’t going to turn out to be the smartest approach. Alan Mather is on the record making that point in characteristically trenchant terms as early as 2002 and I remember using the example a year or so before that.

A few years passed. Directgov came – and went – without ever covering burial at sea. New faces arrived as GDS started to develop what was to become But burial at sea was still there as an example to think about in deciding how far along the long tail it was sensible to try to get. Reflecting on it then, I concluded:

I will be fascinated to see whether they find a way of creating the right long tail, and of stopping the tail being so unwieldy that it trips up the dog

Now a few more years have passed. Michael Cross has just written a piece about two decades of digital government strategies, describing in understandably critical tones the sequence of strategies since the first in 1996. Most of it is a perfectly good summary of what happened and a telling reminder of just how short – and tactical – the life of a strategy can be. But in the middle of the story, there is this arresting paragraph:

Modernising Government was put into action by the newly created Office of the E-Envoy. The following year, in a brief flurry of interest, Blair brought the 2008 target forward to the new European target of 2005 and threw money at grandiose and disconnected plans to drag public services into the digital age, regardless of business case or take-up. A classic example was the e-enabling of the process for applying to conduct burials at sea.

It was indeed a classic example. But it wasn’t an example of grandiose and disconnected plans. It was an example of how the need for prioritisation was recognised early on, with the dozen or so burials at sea each year being a long way down the list. By 2002, the list had in any case got much shorter. For the spending review that year, a list of ‘key services’ was agreed between Cabinet Office and Treasury for priority funding and attention. It was a short list, and burial at sea was not on it.

None of that much matters now, of course. As a mistake it is so minor as to be hardly worth the correction. But it amuses me that, Canute like, the example of a thing sensibly not done has been remembered as an example of the folly of doing it.

Meanwhile, things have come a long way since those heady days of the targets set in 2000. Pragmatically and steadily, information and services have gone online, and now you can find out about burial at sea on More than that, it is even possible at least to begin the process of applying for the necessary licence online, not through a grandiose dedicated service, but unceremoniously by including burials as a special case of waste disposal.

King Canute, meanwhile, is buried at Winchester. Not every headline is accurate.

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  1. Just thought you should know that I remember you talking through the ‘Indivisibility of the Crown’ with me during my first couple of weeks at the OEE!! It has stayed with me and indeed, Ive used it a couple of times since to explain why some things are really hard to achieve!

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