The adoption of digital practice and culture offers one of the most promising ways of ensuring meaningful improvements in the quality, timeliness and cost of our public services right across the public sector. We now need significant post-election momentum in its implementation.
This will in part involve maturing the work of the Government Digital Service (GDS), which has brought agile development practices into play and aimed to deliver an initial set of exemplar transactions via GOV.UK. In parallel, its Office of the CTO (OCTO) has also been driving moves to disaggregate previously inflexible systems, bring back in-house intelligent client skills, open-up markets, use open standards, develop common technology services, place the citizen in control of their personal data, and build on the cross-government platform-based model first adopted in the early 2000s.
These initiatives reflect an ambition to restore to government the expertise and practices available to the best organisations elsewhere. Yet the hardest part of reform has rarely been technology itself. It's the associated improvements required in leadership, management and organisational culture that is always much more challenging – and where most effort will be required if we're to see real momentum. Just as earlier technology-enabled disruption displaced many roles – such as those of the holer, coupler, rubbler and rover – so too many current organisations retain jobs and processes that are increasingly obsolete hangovers from the pre-digital era.
I can't imagine many of us fall asleep at night thinking "Thank goodness my taxes paid for several hundred back-to-back Whitehall middle management meetings today and another duplicate of an existing IT system." We all like to think our taxes pay for doctors, nurses, teachers and the many other essential workers that run our public services. Yet in reality considerable time, effort and money is consumed by pointlessly duplicated, internally absorbed management and administration, and broken and frustrating processes.
The configuration of many of today's organisations looks much as it did in the pre-digital era: inwardly, not outwardly, focused. This is a huge opportunity missed and has to change. We need a relentless refocus on frontline workers and improved services – an outside-in citizen perspective that will in turn inform and drive significant organisational improvement.
I meet far too many people in positions of "leadership" who are a decade or so behind the times. Perhaps this is not so surprising when I also encounter people in senior technology roles who romanticise the days when they outsourced everything to an external supplier and spent their time fondling lengthy contracts and autographing multi-page invoices. It's as if they believe technology can be splintered away from the organisation in which it's used, denying it the very capabilities needed to modernise and improve. Such backward-looking attitudes are a world away from their much more capable and experienced colleagues, including those deservedly recognised in the CIO 100.
I remain ever the optimist however, encouraged by what I believe is a growing cross-party understanding of the real significance of technology enabled change – one that will deliver significant improvements in the way our public services are configured, led, managed, and run. The post election challenge is to see how well and how quickly these improvements can now be delivered.