Would anyone deliberately design our public services like they are today? Probably not – many of them are the accidental, Heath Robinson-like creations of decades of reactive legislative, policy and organisational change. Far from helping streamline and simplify public services, all too often technology has instead fossilised processes, legislation, policies, structures and organisations at an arbitrary moment in time.
As a result, much of the current technology hinders, rather than helps, reform – frustrating citizens, public employees and politicians alike. Online services have usually replicated paper-based "forms" inherited from previous centuries, demanding citizens and businesses enter screen after cryptic screen of verbose information – information already mostly known to the department or agency concerned.
It's hard to imagine any leadership team having credibility that says, "We don't need to understand finance to run our organisation", or "We don't need to understand people to run our organisation". And yet the phrase "We don't need to understand technology to run our organisation" has become a cliché through overuse. Technology needs to be properly understood, designed, deployed and maintained to deliver better services not merely thrown at yesterday's mess – sorry to break this news, but it's not some form of magic.
In most of the public sector, technology-enabled improvements have yet to be implemented at any meaningful scale. Back in the 1990s, numerous futuristic and idealistic visions anticipated an age when government would become smarter, more intelligent and more efficient. Citizens would be able to maintain their own personal data under their own control, and government would have citizens' consent to access this data to ensure no benefit went unclaimed – and indeed no tax unpaid. As in Estonia, users would also be able to see which public officials had accessed their data to hold them to account (with exceptions where such transparency would not apply – for self-evident reasons such as criminal investigations and anti-fraud activities).
Our public services require an objectively honest re-evaluation: genuinely improving them will touch everything – people, processes, technology and governance. Removing the predominant, paper-based clerical model requires the right type of vision, leadership and incentives: previous attempts to reform services around citizens ran into protectionist organisational turf wars.
Thankfully the focus is beginning to move away from the endless polishing of what's currently there and on to discovering how public services could be redesigned to best meet users' needs. Doing so will send a floodtide of disruptive – but much needed – improvements rippling through the entire diaspora of broken processes, obsolete organisational structures, redundant management layers and bureaucratic clerical tiers.
Ultimately of course it's never been technology alone that fossilises and complicates our public services, but an historic lack of user-based design. Services need to flex and adapt quickly and effectively to meet ever-changing citizen and policy needs. The digital-era leadership skills needed to implement these improvements are a world away from the processes of fossilisation. But making these improvements in the quality of leadership, design and operation of our public services is essential. It will prove even more disruptive, far-reaching and beneficial than technology could ever be on its own.