A government that is not a bureaucracy sounds like an oxymoron. Yet the idea of a digital, post-bureaucratic government aims to deliver precisely that: the fundamental redesign and simplification of our public services using 21st Century IT.
So how might we make that happen?
I’ve recently had the privilege of working as the specialist adviser to the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee inquiry into government IT.
The inquiry’s findings make it clear that the problem of government IT is not the tired old canard of IT failures, but of a failure to re-think and successfully re-design our public services for the 21st Century.
If technology and policy are to be successfully integrated from inception to delivery all senior civil servants, and not just the technical community, need to better understand the full potential of IT for the UK’s public services.
Such changes require a significant and painful shift away from the failed approach of the past.
Government will increasingly need to exercise choice regarding technology, suppliers, and the most appropriate commercial vehicle for goods and services.
Doing so will require a vibrant, open ecosystem of suppliers and the adoption of internet-based technical standards.
Yet historically government has done the opposite, standardising on technology, suppliers and commercial vehicles.
As a result, the committee found that government currently has inadequate control over the process simplification, business logic and standards needed to drive the very innovation and redesign of public services that its policy aspirations, and those of an increasingly tech-savvy public, demand.
The committee was however encouraged by more positive evidence.
This included the strong emphasis on skills development and cultural change, open standards, the opening up of public data, the modularisation and disaggregation of contracts and the creation of the skunkworks innovation team in Whitehall.
What remains less clear however is whether these initiatives will continue to operate solely on the margins of the public sector, or move to the mainstream, enabling government to adapt dynamically to changing policy requirements rather than being restricted by monolithic and inflexible systems.
If the report plays even a minor role in making these important changes happen, government IT may at last shed its long-tarnished media image – and digital-era, post-bureaucratic government may become a surprising, but welcome, reality.
Jerry Fishenden is director of the Centre for Technology Policy Research