The purpose of government is to serve its citizens, it should do that as efficiently and effectively as possible. The extent to which any specific government serves its people should depend very much on the needs and wishes of those people.
I very much doubt that many people in the UK would disagree with that statement. Almost everyone that I have ever worked with in the public sector holds the first sentence as a core belief. You cannot work effectively for long in public service if you don’t.
However we seem to have gone astray a little. I think that the reasons for this is rigidity of institutions, exacerbated by thirty years of ideology that the private sector is better than the public sector. The fad for outsourcing on long-term monopoly contracts stifles change. I’ve seen this first hand in more than one central government department. Fortunately this is changing, but slowly, many of the contracts are 10 years. It won’t be until the end of the current Parliament that all the old legacy outsourcing contracts are gone.
Institutions can be easily confused with the services that they offer to the public. For example the NHS as an institution is held in high regard. But what we really value as citizens is the free health care it tries to deliver. Baked into the £2bn a week the NHS spends is a lot of value extracted to maintain the institution and the suppliers. This is true across the public sector.
Transforming Government should be the flavour of the current Parliament, while all the old outsourcing contracts are not yet dead we need a new model before they expire. We have already started this process where there weren’t long contracts, or they have expired already.
You’ll notice I’ve avoided talking about Digital Transformation (or Agile). This is because I don’t think that they are necessarily the most helpful way to talk about transforming government. People get too het up about specific methodologies or trade mark terms. They also bring misconceptions with them, some of that is our fault. Digital Transformation isn’t about doing everything online and automating the people out of it, although there may well be services that need that approach. What it should be is a back to basics understanding of what our users need, and focus on the people and the services they need. We need to stop spending taxes on institutions, suppliers and middlemen.
Nor is agile about chopping and changing, or scrum, or building software. Agile has become the trademark term that was never intended. There are religious wars about the one true way, and how we cannot be half agile. The people saying it mean well, but they too have succumbed to the institutionalisation of agile. It’s just a tool, or maybe a philosophy of getting things done. Use it where it is useful, and leave it where it isn’t. Not everything is wrong with government, and even where we can make improvements it isn’t always a software or a technology issue. Mostly those are easy to do, it’s the people stuff that is hard – so that’s what we need to focus on.
What transforming government should be about is stripping everything back to basics.
- What do the people need from their government?
- What capabilities does government need to deliver those needs?
- How much does government actually need to deliver?
The focus should be on the bare minimum that the people demonstrably need. By people I also include the entrepreneurs that are resident in the country and their business that contribute to our economy.
Comments or observations welcome.