By Ben Rooney – Featured in The Wall Street Journal – 19.09.12
At last week’s WSJ Tech Cafe held near London’s “Silicon Roundabout,” venture capitalist Saul Klein of Index Ventures said that the Internet was coming of age and should be able to tackle big things like health care, education, transport—or government.
Described by one speaker as the U.K.’s “most innovative start-up” the Government Digital Service, the branch of the U.K. government charged with delivering the government’s digital agenda, has begun a program aimed not merely at changing how the government delivers its services to citizens, but changing the business of government itself.
“Government IT project” is a phrase associated with multimillion pound projects being delivered over-budget, late, and not achieving what they were intended. Take for example a 2004 program for nine regional fire centers in the U.K. It was scrapped in 2010 after completely failing to deliver, and at a cost to the U.K. taxpayer of £469 million (about $762 million).
According to Mike Bracken, who heads up the GDS, change has already started. A plan to transform the way citizens are registered to vote was one of the first his 200-strong team tackled. “There was a proposal to spend £100 million over two-three years” for a system, he said. “Instead we have [built] a service in 12 weeks for a fraction of the cost.”
“The biggest challenge we face is the simple challenge of belief,” said Mr. Bracken. “We are in a system that for 15 years the prevailing logic has been ‘it is technology, you don’t understand it, it costs a fortune, it takes years’.
“At the same time we as digital consumers have been enjoying the output of a consumer society that says ‘it’s technology, its really cheap, it’s really quick and it provides step changes in great service.’ Only one of those arguments can be right.”
One innovative approach to government IT concerns identity. Unlike many European nations, the U.K. does not have a national ID card. Moves to introduce one by the previous administration were strongly opposed by civil-rights groups and the coalition government scrapped the plan on coming to power.
What GDS is doing instead is looking to leverage existing relationships that users may have online to provide identity assurance. “Consumers or businesses already have a model of trust around identity with a number of suppliers— your bank, Facebook, Twitter etc. We can leverage some of that trust to validate identity,” said Mr. Bracken.
According to his deputy, Emer Coleman, “What we have done is to separate the need to authenticate from the need to store large amounts of data.”
But in the rush to get online, is there a risk that many users—the old, the poor, the unconnected—will be left behind? According to a report published this week by think tank Policy Exchange there are 8 million people in the U.K. who are not online. Of those, nearly half are registered disabled, nearly half without home access are from the lowest socioeconomic group, and some 44% have no formal qualification. Older age groups are disproportionately represented: Seven out of 10 citizens over 65 do not have an online device at home, and 5.4 million have never used the Internet.
As Nick Faith from Policy Exchange pointed out: “They are likely to be major consumers of government services.”
The report,”Simple Things, Done Well,” cautions against establishing a two-tier service where those who do not, or cannot, access digital services are penalized.
Ms. Coleman said the government strategy had put an emphasis on what it termed “assisted digital.” “We are providing people with help to use digital services and other ways to use services. Lots of this will be provided by front line staff, some will be provided by external providers.”
Part of Mr. Bracken’s mandate is not merely to improve government, but to change it. “If we don’t reform the civil service, the institution itself, then what we can do may not persist. Just as important is the internal change we are effecting on the government machine.”
There is a lot of talk of “government 2.0,” of government as a platform, simply providing the data and the tools such as open Application Program Interfaces (a way for programs to interact with each other) , and others should be able to build the best services. The BBC, for example, used to make all its own shows in-house. Now it commissions a great many; is this a future model for government? No, says Ms. Coleman. “You can’t, as a government, be as free as Twitter. You can’t have completely open access and allow anyone to play with an open API. We are the government.
“The lowest possible barrier to innovation applies, but there must be barriers.
“Nor am I convinced there is a business case for a lot of what government does. Sure people can use our APIs to pay your tax, and there is a lot of tax software that does that without ever touching the HMRC [U.K. tax office] website, but that is a long way from saying all services can be done that way.”
Given that the GDS is only a year old, a lot has been achieved. The U.K. government has been bold in its embracing of the potential of digital and the opportunities it presents. But, says Mr. Bracken, they have only just started. The ultimate aim is that digital should start to affect not just how government delivers services, but the very nature of government itself.
“What is the nature of government in a digital world?” asked Mr. Bracken.
“We are finding out.”