Government is finally developing a nascent digital department, and that department is DCMS.

That’s from an account by Chris Yiu of a speech by Ed Vaizey at yesterday’s Digital Leaders conference. Chris, who was live blogging the event with characteristic panache, went on to comment:

Merging the digital economy bits of DCMS and BIS is only the beginning – a truly digital department would need to annex bits of the Cabinet Office, Home Office, Department for Education and beyond if we’re serious about a coherent digital strategy for the UK. Perhaps he should go see the PM and pitch to become the first Secretary of State for Digital?

As far as I can tell (I wasn’t at the event, didn’t hear the speech and the text does not seem to have been published), Vaizey was talking about bringing together government policy on the digital economy. Chris is more ambitious than that, as his comment makes clear, prompting the question of why a Secretary of State for Digital might be a good thing in the first place.

There is an easy answer. The future still looks relentlessly digital. Government is still a long way from being organised around meeting needs, rather than providing (or requiring) services. Becoming a more effective digital nation depends on the interaction of networks, tools, people, education, ambition, legal frameworks, security and no doubt much else beside, and it’s very hard to construct a coherent picture, never mind a coherent policy, when those things are fragmented across government. Government’s efforts to make itself digital have been spectacularly successful in some areas, showing what can be done, but those successes are still unevenly distributed. A Secretary of State for Digital could bring drive and focus, accelerating both the pace and the effectiveness of change.

And yet. If there is a Department of Digital, and a Secretary of State for Digital, what should they not be in charge of? If there is a message from the digital revolution, it is that digital touches everything, that the remit of the Department for Analogue will never regain the heady scope it once had. Digital is not a separate thing to be bolted on when the real work has been done elsewhere, it is not a channel for final delivery, independent of context.

We have been here before, in times so long ago that e-government was the cutting edge word:

A long time ago, I used to give a lot of presentations about something called e-government, and particularly e-government strategy. After doing that for a while, I became increasing convinced that that the language of e-government left a lot to be desired, mainly because it had too many connotation of separateness. e-Government was something done by e-people to produce e-strategies which eventually, if you were lucky, might deliver e-services.  In the meantime, government-without-an-e carried on doing what it does, and the two seemed destined to have little to do with each other.

That’s a caricature, of course, but it’s close enough to home that by the end of 2000, those presentations had a little box which faded in (powerpoint animation was still a cool trick back then) proclaiming that ‘e-government is government’.  By the end of 2001, the box had grown, the text had gone from 24pt to 60pt and it took up an entire slide on its own.

That perception, that e-government is not a helpful concept, that the future is a single and integrated one, was an important one, with important consequences.  It was one of the first routes for bringing the concept of the customer into central government thinking, it was the vehicle for the first serious work on what we would later call customer insight, reflecting the fact that the real power of online services was their relationship with other channels, and the revolutionary consequences of providing choice in access to public services.

The choice is not as binary as this suggests, of course. Some centralisation of effort, coupled with political drive and leadership, can be a powerful way to drive progress – GDS is an obvious example of that. But organisational solutions demand organisational questions: not just, what is the problem to which the creation of a Department of Digital is the answer, but also, what is the reason for thinking that that is the best available solution?

In other words, the question is not about digital or not digital, it is about systems in a much wider sense. I have argued before that if you want to change a system, you have to understand it as a system.1  I wrote a longer piece on what is fundamentally the same issue a couple of years ago,2 making the point that

It is an encouraging sign of maturity when we can stop qualifying things with ‘electronic’ or ‘digital’. Digital engagement is not a digital problem, it is an engagement problem. More digital activity will be a symptom of better engagement. Better engagement won’t, on the whole, be a symptom of more digital.

All of that suddenly reminds me of a great report Chris wrote (with Sarah Fink) a couple of years ago when he was still working at Policy Exchange. I started to write a response to it at the time, but never got round to finishing it. A few paragraphs from that draft post seem worth resurrecting:

The stack of reports by and to government about the transformational power of digital is tall and tottering. The bottom of the stack is twenty years old, faded and dusty. Now, at the top of the stack comes the latest diagnosis and prescription – Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger: Remaking government for the digital age from Policy Exchange. Do we really need yet another strategy? And can it tell us anything different from all those which have gone before it?

The answers to those questions are a resounding ‘yes’  – much more so than I had expected. This is a good and thought provoking piece of work and one very much worth reading and reflecting on – though not necessarily to agree with. Its purpose is to bank the achievement of the current digital strategy and ask what should go beyond it in the years to 2020. In addressing that question, Chris Yiu and Sarah Fink, the authors of the report, put forward some powerful and radical arguments for change. They are absolutely right to argue that the unavoidable implications of continuing digital changes require a more radical approach than they have so far received. Even more importantly, the stress they place on people and leadership is a critical, but too often overlooked, part of the challenges – and the very fact that they pay so much attention to it marks them out from all too many techno-utopian fantasists:

As is so often the case when it comes to public sector reform, this is really a story about people, leadership and organisational change. Technology is both the context and the enabler for radically better government, but it is how we choose to embrace it that will make the difference between success and failure. [29]

But the report is made even more interesting for me by the fact that there is plenty to challenge and disagree with, as well as much which is persuasively argued.

Their starting premise is that there is something distinctive about government:

When we look back over the last two decades, nowhere has the internet revolution has been felt less than in the business of government. [12]

And their fundamental explanation for that is very simple:

Unlike the other dinosaurs of the pre-internet age, government enjoys a singular status that lets it sidestep the choice between change and extinction. [13]

That’s not wholly wrong, of course, not by a long way. But it doesn’t tell us as much as it might first appear. If the problem is not primarily about technology and is instead more about leadership, culture, people and organisations, we have to ask what it is that makes government distinctive. The report does identify the lack of competitive pressures on governments, which have a lower risk of going out of business than more commercial organisations. But almost nothing is said about two other obvious factors, the fact that government is political and the fact that it does things differently from other kinds of organisation at least in part because it does different things.

Let’s start with the politics. Government as an institution has a longevity which outstrips most other kinds of institutions, but governments are short lived and survive by their responsiveness at the macro level. To dismiss that effect as ‘one administration succeeds another’ is to have things precisely backwards: much radical reform is difficult in government not because of some underlying and relentless continuity, but because of its fundamental discontinuity. That’s not to say that there is no institutional inertia in government, of course there is, but treating government as a closed system operated by civil servants is a very partial view of the complex dynamics involved. Recognising that makes it possible to see an important risk. There is a balance between the apparently inexorable pressures making government digital and the fragility with which some of that is happening in practice.3

Then there is delivery. There is much to agree with here, and it is unquestionably right that ideas developed and progress made in other sectors should be borrowed and adopted by government. Clearly the more government and its services are like other organisations and services, the more straightforward that borrowing can be. So we need to get some measure of the differences before we can be confident that the similarities are a guide, not a siren. In discussing the need for open APIs, the point is made that

It is important to remember that government web services are a particularly high profile target, and that citizens may be less tolerant of downtime on government services compared to similar commercial services. Moreover, as the rules of engagement for these sorts of encounters are still evolving, the transparency attached to government may make it harder to deploy the same breadth and intensity of countermeasures that other organisations might deem necessary. [39]

That sounds right as far as it goes, but it may not go far enough. There is a rather deeper level at which the differences of government may matter in this context. To take just one example, the land registry is not just a useful database of property and ownership – though it is that – it is the canonical record for those things. Opening the data to use in new and powerful applications has great power. Opening it to third party transactions creates an opportunity for property fraud on an industrial scale. That is not a reason not to be open, it is an indication of the need to understand systems at a sufficiently deep level.

It is still true that government is not a disruptive start up. It is still true that it can be – and will be – disrupted by organisations which are. It is still true that government is institutionally conservative. It is still true that the impact of digital on government is a long way from playing out.

Perhaps a Department of Digital would further shape and catalyse that change. But whether that is the best or only way forward is a harder question, and I am not sure I know the answer.

  1. That doesn’t mean endless analysis of every last detail as a convenient excuse for never actually doing anything, it does means recognising that there is a system in the first place.
  2. Though from a slightly different starting point, prompted by a really good challenge by Steph Gray which is also well worth reading.
  3. In a very different context, Ian Leslie has written about the fragility of freedom as a political system and how hard that fragility is to see for those within it. I think it is worth asking whether in the short to medium term, digital in government shares that unseen fragility.