Digital organisational practices enable us to make significant improvements to the way our public services work. But instead of seizing hold of this opportunity, many existing bureaucracies appear to place their own internal interests before front line services. There remains a widespread misunderstanding of "digital", miscasting it as being about yet another generation of online versions of paper forms and processes rather than the catalyst for a wholesale reshaping and improvement of the public sector.
The result is damaging and unsustainable. A variety of essential front line services have been unnecessarily cut, including the shameful closure of day care centres for the most deserving and vulnerable. At the same time, many organisations have insulated their expensively and pointlessly duplicated internal management, information systems, data and administrative overheads, choosing to cut the front line and protect the organisational status quo rather than those they're there to serve. Mark Thompson, a co-author of my book "Digitizing Government", claims we're being sold a lie and that this inwardly focused mind-set needs to be challenged and reset for the digital age.
This failure is perhaps no surprise when a body with the status of the Institute for Government can publish a report on "Reshaping Government" and yet entirely ignore digital era management practices, or even the pan-Whitehall reform being initiated by the Government Digital Service. The report has fallen out of a wormhole from the analogue age, oblivious to the digitally enabled organisational practices, business models and data-driven approaches to service transformation adopted elsewhere and already making themselves felt across Whitehall and local government.
This digitally enabled move to re-organising our public services by focusing on the needs of citizens – rather than public sector organisations – will create a major beneficial shift in the way the public sector works. It provides a profound choice between whether we improve front line public services by adopting digitally-enabled organisational and management practices – or continue with the current organisation-centric model, in part responsible for the sidelining and attrition of services.
Expenditure in the public sector for any reason other than the creation of direct value to citizens is both needless and wasteful. Significant resource must be moved away from the wasteful complexity of organisations' duplicated structures, systems, processes, data and fiefdoms and redirected instead into front line services. This will be achieved in part by continuing to consume or grow additional cross-government platform components, but it also requires a broader approach that breaks down traditional service delivery models, management practices, information systems and organisational structures and processes in order to nurture the re-birth of public services designed around citizens' needs.
This is the perfect opportunity to implement the digital-era organisational and management practices that have succeeded elsewhere. It will provide a much more effective approach to "reshaping government" than the dusty command and control, top-down "machinery of government" changes of the past. But doing so requires a much better and more widespread political understanding of "digital" and the nurturing of an enduring cross-party consensus and commitment to relentlessly move the focus to where it rightfully belongs: citizens' services.