It's just over 19 years since the website open.gov.uk first tried to put all government information online in one place. In the intervening period, there has been no lack of political aspiration and initiatives to use technology to improve our public services. Yet delivery – the execution and successful implementation of that aspirational political vision – has often lagged well behind.
So why has there been this obstinate gap between aspiration and execution? Alongside the wrong procurement approach and skills, the governance of the public sector’s use of technology has often seemed notably adrift from successful models employed elsewhere. Perhaps small wonder that this obstinate gap persists when a recent report can talk about “Civil Service Capabilities” and yet contain no mention of IT or digital, missing out entirely the long-standing need for effective digital public management.
The EPSRC identify good governance as "… the way in which organisations are directed, controlled and led. It defines relationships and the distribution of rights and responsibilities among those who work with and in the organisation, determines the rules and procedures through which the organisation’s objectives are set, and provides the means of attaining those objectives and monitoring performance. Importantly, it defines where accountability lies throughout the organisation."
It's this essential balance of both responsibilities and rights that so often seems to have been the missing ingredient. When even Tony Blair as Prime Minister set out to make Permanent Secretaries accountable for electronic service delivery and yet still little of substance happened, it was a clear indication of a much bigger problem of culture, behaviour, capability and risk-reward than one of "IT governance" alone.
Numerous better, lower risk ways of re-engineering our public services have now been established, from the Government Service Design Manual, to modern supply frameworks such as G-Cloud. Alongside these better models, there is the discipline of the spend controls. Despite this, bad habits die hard, with many relapsing into old behaviours, trying to bundle everything into big bang, “kitchen sink” functional specifications and associated procurements from large suppliers. Yet whilst Whitehall, “seen it all before” cynics stare wryly into their beers and draw parallels between the new Digital Leaders and the old Information Age Champions of the late 1990s, they overlook the significance of a change programme that is finally happening on multiple fronts, with digital technology an integral part of civil service reform.
The GDS exemplar programmes, driving a spike through existing departmental processes and the design, operation and delivery of their services, is a promising sign of progress – an attempt not just to throw technology at existing services, but to address the more fundamental issue of how to re-engineer our public services for the twenty-first century. This mix, of developing and sustaining high quality leadership that “gets digital”, backed up by control and accountability mechanisms that help deliver better public services, reduce waste, improve project outcomes, and stimulate economic growth, is significant. Finally, we may be about to witness the elimination of that obstinate gap between vision and delivery.