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Demand more of digital Mark Thompson will tell National Digital Conference

The 9th National Digital Conference gets underway today (Wednesday 18 June) in London with Cambridge Judge Business School’s digital guru, Dr Mark Thompson, in the chair.

DigitalWith an audience of leading public servants, technologists, individuals and politicians working at the heart of digital transformation, the Empowering People themed conference will explore the vital role people can play in shaping and delivering digital services in the UK. Mark gave us this preview of his opening speech.

Governments and public sector organisations across the world are trying to balance essential, and often conflicting, demands: to deliver better, more relevant public services centred on the needs of the citizens they serve; to reduce costs and improve efficiency; and to re-invent supply chains to deliver services more quickly, cheaply and effectively.

Here in the UK, global competitiveness is set to decline from just under five per cent of world GDP around the turn of the century to 2.6 per cent by 2028; the Western European economy will by then represent just 14.5 per cent of world GDP. Maintaining our existing standards of public services in an era of relative decline therefore demands a serious and open public debate about how we re-organise our public service delivery models, or accept lower public service standards. We cannot continue to pretend that we can have both.

Digital businesses disrupt existing, cosy models, and offer a real opportunity to re-organise our public services to make them genuinely citizen-centred, support modern expectations about how people want to interact, and take cost out of the system. However, online digital offerings that encourage a platform for direct interaction between citizens and the state are inherently disruptive – they disintermediate traditional institutions that broker supply and demand, and which extract rents for doing so. Ebay, Amazon, Mechanical Turk, Odesk, Lastminute.com, Skyscanner, Android, Spotify – there is an ever-growing list of web-enabled platforms that effectively provide a direct clearing house between service providers and customers, enabling innovation, co-creation, evolution – and, of course, savings. This is what digital businesses do.

So how can we make sure that UK public services are more like Spotify and less like EMI? We need to talk about radical business model change, for sure. But we need serious skills to do this: from teaching children to develop, rather than consume tech, to helping policymakers and senior public servants get their heads around digital business models, enterprise architecture, and platform economics. And we need to build in the principle of digital inclusion of the unwilling or unable from the outset – or public services will lose legitimacy.

Finally, we need to engage our politicians, who have for too long taken too little interest in digital. Digital means loss of jobs, as well as creation of shiny new ones; it means accepting that disruption is the flipside of innovation, and that empowering people very often involves disintermediating, and thus disempowering – many traditional government structures. Digital needs to re-energise traditional political debate.

To address this, the Tories’ policy was squarely founded on progressive adoption of open standards – i.e. the need for government to exercise discipline, stop indulging itself and consume, rather than build its tech, unless absolutely necessary. This, not agile, was the foundational philosophy of the government IT strategy. If government was a group of companies owned by the same set of shareholders, those shareholders would rightly demand that these companies co-operated and shared capabilities, rather than pretending that each one had its own shareholders. In response, digital grew out of a realisation that as shareholders, taxpayers needed to demand that the ‘government group’ started behaving like a group and less like a set of fiefdoms: and that new, digitally-enabled business models could help with a general reinvention of the way government behaves.

The problem is that reinventing government is fundamentally a political, not a tech, issue. Sure, the tech can help – but all that redundancy and self-indulgence supports jobs. Digital threatens to disrupt hierarchies, merge departments, and change the way things have been done for over 150 years; it’s ‘real’ reinvention, rather than the pretend-transformation we’ve been hearing about for so long. Predictably enough therefore, the current emphasis within digital has shifted to “agile” – because agile involves building your own stuff again, rather than consuming, and leaves all those underlying hierarchies fundamentally undisturbed. It’s funky, yet unthreatening: the perfect stall.

More generally, rather than paying all those SIs to build stuff, Cabinet Office is simply growing its own SI to build stuff – and the fact it’s using open source makes little difference. The tech is still special, requires upgrades and maintenance, and the UK remains in its cul-de-sac, decoupled from the innovation of the global marketplace. Digital has a ying and a yang: agile is nonsense without self-control, re-use, and architecture – and discussion of these foundations is almost entirely non-existent. As shareholders of government, we need to wake up to the fact that our Board members don’t get it – probably aren’t even listening – and that our employees will resist digital reinvention at every turn.

Digital is fundamentally not about exciting new interfaces with the citizen – but about fundamental business model change. Digital is therefore disingenuous without an open, honest debate about how reinventing government will reshape the public sector and alter the nature of public sector jobs. So my challenge is that the promise of ‘digital’ is already starting to fade. There are some notable exceptions, but from a digital point of view we are being badly governed by our political masters, who have little interest in any of this.

As citizens we need to demand better of our leaders: don’t just do the easy, shiny bits: tackle the hard bits as well.