A major new report on how the UK government “does digital” has concluded that the gap between those who make policy and the end-users (i.e.: us) is big and deep and wide and a major impediment on making progress in this area.
By progress, we mean seamless, efficient, pain-free, hassle free transactions. The report holds up how passport applications have changes over the last twenty years – and particularly since 2013 as an illustration. And you can see their point.
But it is not just ease of use for us as citizens. In these cash-strapped times, how else does central government save money (up to £2bn of it) and deliver services: automation of transactions is a key means to do both.
So says the much-respected Institute for Government. But if all this is self-evidently good, what is the problem? Because the public on-the-record criticism of ministers and the most senior civil servants by their only slightly less eminent colleagues this week was striking.
Remote, illiterate, self-interested, regressive, abysmal management, poor pay, risk averse, incentivised to be sub-optimal. I paraphrase, but not by much.
Taken at face value, even if the looming autumn statement provides clarity on the direction and priorities of the Government Digital Service, the structure of government decision making and financial control means it will not be put to best use.
In the storm of despair, there was one noticeable beacon of success. The DVLA claims 92% of its transactions achieved digitally (which is “interesting” given Office of National Statisitics data on internet connectivity and use). They accept that some customers will not want, nor be able, to move away from paper records and that is fine. How has this been done?
Let’s just say it isn’t rocket science. Mutli-disciplinary teams to bridge the gaps between policy formulation, product development and customer experience. A curious, extrovert approach to seek out improved and new ways of working. The self-awareness and self-confidence to say when something isn’t working or isn’t worth pursuing.
Let me acknowledge that DVLA paradigm is not trouble-free. PCS members have had to take industrial action to try and defend working conditions. Indeed, poorly paid, badly managed, disincentivised workforces unsurprisingly have a tendency to underperformance, or resistance to change.
And here is a central contradiction that government must grasp if it wants to “do digital” better: You need to take people with you, but how can you with employment and economic policies that don’t work for so many (with alarming new projections of child poverty published just yesterday) ?
This is not a Luddite argument. Employees and union members are citizens and service users too. They want government to work as efficiently as their bank or on-line supermarket. They recognise change is constant. But we all need to pay bills, almost all of us want to work, and we surely have an entitlement to live rather than just survive.
Is it too much to expect Government-led digital programmes to respect those prerequisites?
This is the second of two linked articles about the Digital Economy. The first appears here