There are increasing numbers of government services which are digital. But that doesn’t make for a digital government. This post is a challenge to set a greater ambition, to make government itself digitally transformed. As a manifesto or a call to arms, there’s a lot here: a government with the characteristics envisaged here would be a better government. But in general, the problem with transforming government has not been with describing how government might work better, but with navigating the route to get there – and that makes the question in the title critically important. Ultimately though, the digital bit may be a critical catalyst but is not the goal – and we need to be clear both about the nature of that goal and about the fact that digital is a means of transforming; not that transforming is a means to be digital. This post describes powerful tools for realising an ambition for better government – but they will have effect only if both ambition and opportunity are there to use them. On that, it’s well worth reading this alongside Matthew’s own post earlier this year commenting on the government’s digital strategy.
This is the back story to one of yesterday’s budget announcements – £40 million a year for two years to give UK small businesses access to Ordnance Survey data. If you are interested in that you will find it gripping. But even if you are not, it’s well worth reading as a perceptive – if necessarily speculative – account of how policy gets made.
There are people lobbying for change – some outside government, some within. What they want done has a cost, but more importantly entails changing the way that the problem is thought about, not just in the bit of government which owns the policy, but in the Treasury, which is going to have to pay for it. A decision is made, but not one which is as clear cut or all embracing as the advocates would have liked. They have won, in a sense, but what they have won isn’t really what they wanted.
It’s also a good example of why policy making is hard. What seems at first to be a simple issue about releasing data quickly expands into wider questions of industrial and social strategy – is it a good idea to subsidise mapping data, even if the first order beneficiaries are large non-UK multinationals whose reputation for paying taxes is not the most positive? Is time limited pump-priming funding the right stimulus, or does it risk creating a surge of activity which then dies away? And, of course, this is a policy with no service design in sight.
This wide ranging and fast moving report hits the Strategic Reading jackpot. It provides a bravura tour of more of the topics covered here than is plausible in a single document, ticking almost every category box along the way. It moves at considerable speed, but without sacrificing coherence or clarity. That sets the context for a set of radical recommendations to government, based on the premise established at the outset that incremental change is a route to mediocrity, that ‘status quo plus’ is a grave mistake.
Not many people could pull that off with such aplomb. The pace and fluency sweep the reader along through the recommendations, which range from the almost obvious to the distinctly unexpected. There is a debate to be had about whether they are the best (or the right) ways forward, but it’s a debate well worth having, for which this is an excellent provocation.
The question in the title of this piece can be answered very simply: yes, overwhelmingly bureaucrats do care. The fact that such an answer is not obvious, or not credible, to many people who are not bureaucrats suggests that the better question might be, how is it that uncaringness is an emergent property of systems populated by caring people?
Two rather different groups of bureaucrats are considered here. The first is those furthest from the delivery of services, particularly policy makers, and of them particularly those who learned their penmanship while studying classics at Oxford. There are rather fewer of those than there once were. But there is overwhelming evidence that even those who do not neatly fit the stereotype can be far too distant from the people whose needs their policies are intended to address. The second group is those who deliver services directly to the people who use them, described drawing on the work of Bernardo Zacka, covered here a few weeks ago. They are not rules-applying automata, but subtle observers, judges and influencers of what is going on – and incorporating those perspectives and insights into policy making enhances it immeasurably. That is increasingly happening, but this post is a good reminder that too often the gap remains a wide one.
Public services – and specifically those of the Beveridge welfare state – are dead; long live services to the public. The argument here is essentially that monolithic, top-down solutions are no longer fit for purpose (though some element of the Beveridge welfare state have always fitted that description much better than others), and that we need to replace them with approaches which are more local and are designed more collaboratively. It is undeniably true that much has changed since Beveridge’s time, and the idea that the man from Whitehall (or, of course, in Beveridge’s case, the man from the LSE) knows best doesn’t have the force it once had, to put it mildly. There is much to be said for the three principles which the authors suggest should underpin the new services to the public – that welfare should be seen as a public good; that services should be designed collaboratively; and that they should be organised and led around places. Wishing for a different future is easy, and there is certainly a place of visionary alternatives. But this would be a more powerful post if it gave at least some account of what a transition might look like or how it might be triggered.
Do you best transform government by importing disruption and disruptors to overwhelm the status quo, or by nurturing and encouraging deeper but slower change which more gradually displaces the status quo? Or do both methods fail, leaving government – and the civil service – to stagger on to the next crisis, all set to try again and fail again?
The argument of this post is that those attempts are doomed to failure because the civil service is not willing to acknowledge the depth of the crisis it faces, and until it is, it will never take the steps necessary to fix things. It’s a good and thought provoking polemic – and the questions above are very real ones. But it underplays two important factors. The first is to frame this as being about the civil service. Arguably, that’s too narrow a view: if you want to change the system, you have to change the system: the civil service is the way that it is in large part because of the wider political system of which it is part. The second is one the article rightly identifies, but then does not really pursue. One reason disruptive outsiders tend to fail is that by definition they are brought in at a time when they enjoy the strongest possible patronage – and it’s an understandable temptation to see that as a normal state of affairs. But the reality is that such patronage always fades. Disruptors tend to sprint; they might do better if they planned for a relay – and that is as true for those attempting to disrupt from within as for those brought in to disrupt from without.
The problem with good policies, badly implemented is not primarily the bad implementation, it is that the bad implementation strongly suggests they weren’t good policies to start with. That’s the proposition advanced by this post, (and one interesting to read in parallel with The Blunders of our Government).
There are few examples of good but badly implemented policies because, in this approach, policy making is not – or not just – the grand sweep of a speech, but is the grinding detail of working through real world implications. Failure of implementation is therefore a strong indicator of a bad policy – akin, perhaps, to the idea that if you can’t explain a complicated thing simply, you probably don’t understand it.
Civil servants and civil services have ethical responsibilities for what they do. They can and must take account of the democratic mandate of the governments they serve, but that is a factor in the ethical judgements they make, it is not an exemption from the obligation to make them.
Usually when questions of this kind are discussed it is in the context of the limits beyond which government officials should not act, given that by strong implication politically neutral civil servants value the political, legal and civil system more highly than all the specific outcomes of that system. But this post is doubly interesting because it comes from the opposite direction: are there countervailing obligations, are there circumstances in which officials should continue in government despite fundamental disagreements with the policy and ethics of the political leaders they serve? The assertion here is that commitment to the values of public service can – and arguably should – lead people to stay in government both to sustain services to those who depend on them and to mitigate the worst consequences of bad policies and decisions. It’s a powerful argument. But it has the potential to be a profoundly undemocratic one. Democracies undoubtedly need checks and balances and in extremis, civil services can be such a check. But we should be worried – much more as citizens than as bureaucrats – when political and legal checks are insufficient to create an ethical balance.
Politicians make decisions, legitimised by their democratic mandate. Bureaucrats implement those decisions, based on the objective and standardised application of rules.
So at least goes the standard caricature. Reality is, of course, more complicated than that. That simplistic model breaks down for at last two kinds of reasons. First, the real world is just too big and varied to make it possible – or sensible – to specify everything in minute detail. Systems which attempt to do that tend to break. Secondly, bureaucrats and the consumers of public services are human beings (as indeed are politicians), and their interactions will inevitably be influenced by emotional as well rational responses. Bureaucrats always have faces, even if those faces are not always visible.
This article is a thoughtful exploration of the place of bureaucracy and bureaucrats in wider political systems, including the psychological toil which can be exacted on those trying to manage those intrinsic tensions between rules, complex reality, and humanity.
By happy – one might almost say curious – coincidence, this is another mapping of policy interventions, but this time ranked by democratic power. The result may feel a little painful to user researchers, but is a powerful complement to the Policy Lab perspectives.
But this post is about much more than a neat diagram. The core argument is that policy making is intrinsically political, and that being political should mean being democratic, not – or at least not just – because democracy is intrinsically good, but because there is already clear evidence that bad things happen when design, and particularly digital design, happens in a democratic vacuum. ‘Working in the open’ is one of the mantras of GDS. This post takes that thought to a level I suspect few of its proponents have ever imagined.
A short and powerful polemic on why government doesn’t have needs (and thus why governments are different from users, which do). It’s a powerful argument, but a narrower one than the author seems to recognise. To the extent that government is a provider of services, there is much to be said for a strong focus on meeting user needs, and there is certainly good reason to think that behaving as if that were true has some powerful positive benefits, not least in that using the language of needs gives the best possible chance of not getting prematurely tied up with solutions. There’s a risk, though, that the consumers of a service are seen as the only relevant people, and their needs the only relevant needs. That’s sometimes true (or as nearly true that we don’t need to worry about it), but often there are social and collective interests in how a service operates as well as the individual one – which is one reason they are government services in the first place.
The post is also dismissive of describing the users of government services as ‘customers’. That’s a view which is more rigid than sensible – but that’s a debate for another day.
It’s a rare treat for a site with an audience disproportionately made up of practising bureaucrats to point to a post which begins by describing bureaucracy as one of humanity’s best inventions. But there is, not surprisingly, a sting in the tail: the very qualities which are the strength of bureaucracy are the downfall of creativity and innovation. The answer suggested here is ‘Parallel Learning Structures’. From the description in the post, the recent flurry of policy labs, innovation spaces and agility in governments has strong if unwitting resonance, with that approach – but the question, as ever, is how to move these approaches from the margin to the core.
Government is mostly about making choices, most of the time. Or more precisely, that’s what politics is. The reason politics is hard is because those choices are often hard in their own right, and harder still when put in the context of all the other choices which need to be made.
This post is a cartoon which starts with the question – apparently the final hurdle in White House job interviews – about your readiness to microwave a puppy. It ends with the assertion that the White House – and, by extension, politics generally – is a place where impossible choices are made everyday. The two are more connected than they might first appear.