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Digitizing Government: does the book tell the whole story?

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I recently took some time to read a book called Digitizing Government (I know, I know, you’d think that I’d perhaps want to spend my spare time doing something other than public sector IT, but it’s a passion I’m afraid). The book, written by three experienced IT and government strategists, examines the increasing speed and efficiency of digital transformation across government and what digitizing government really means to all those communities it touches.

For me the book raised some really good points that I wanted to share with you. Firstly, the authors identified that the government can spend millions of pounds on new technology, but often fail to recognise that the problem that it’s trying to solve isn’t related to technology – rather that it’s an organisational problem or that they’re simply trying to turn a paper based process into an electronic one without any thought of re-engineering.

Take HMRC’s self-assessment tax return website for example. Fundamentally the user is still completing the same old form online that it did previously with paper and pen. No thought has gone into whether this process could be improved by re-designing the input. At the opposite end, we have the new car tax system that recognised that by re-engineering the process entirely, both the DVLA and the user could save time and money through its digitisation - an approach that should be commended.

The book goes on to look at high profile government failures in an attempt to see how these could be avoided in the future. This section of the book provided a good opportunity to identify trends and approaches that could form the platform for a cohesive methodology that could be adopted across the board.

One of the interesting trends identified by the authors was that in the past the government always felt that it couldn’t implement IT in the same way the private sector did. It believed (and still believes to a certain extent) that its volume of transactional process, data and security needs are far greater than that of the private sector. In short, it felt that its programmes were bigger. Over the past five years this balance has shifted entirely. You only need to look to the retail, banking and insurance sectors to see that their transactions far exceed any of those in the public sector. This shift means that vendors have greater experience of implementing large scale programmes and are able to bring this best practice for the benefit of the public sector.

The book does trigger some interesting ideas but it did fail to cover an important point that I can see gaining traction in the public sector. In the past government departments were often tied in to long contracts with single vendors. This provided no flexibility and stifled innovation while waiting for ten year contracts to expire. As has happened in the private sector, open technology and the ability to integrate different solutions is helping to drive both innovation and cost savings, while uplifting expertise. Buying frameworks such as G-Cloud has encouraged this period of openness. Eventually the outcome of this should be the creation of a public sector ecosystem where many solutions interact and integrate to bring the consumer a single digital experience tailored to them.

It’s my belief and that shared by the authors that we’re seeing this change driven by expertise moving from private sector roles and into key senior public sector technology positions. As they continue to move across so that expertise is improved and increased and will result in a truly Digital Era of Governance (DEG).

It was good to see these issues and concerns highlighted and bought to the fore. While I’m not sure the book will make it on to a best sellers list, it was certainly avid reading for me. It did go a long way to telling the story of a digital government.

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