Government's digital by default strategy in jeopardy because it "doesn't get it"

By Danny Palmer
04 Apr 2014 View Comments

The government "doesn't get" digital, which is causing old problems to re-emerge within the public sector and threatening to end the digital strategy.

That's the view of Mark Thompson, university lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Business School, former adviser to George Osborne on IT reform, and board director at Intellect. He believes a shift towards an agile rather than a digital strategy threatens to undermine IT reforms made by government in the past few years.

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Thompson made the comments while speaking at EMC and Policy Exchange roundtable event near London's Silicon Roundabout on how technology can reinvent government.

"Government digital is in danger of losing its way. It was absolutely founded on the realisation that five years ago the government had spent 20 years indulging itself in building luxury bespoke IT in a frenzied splurge instead of consuming standard stuff like the rest of us have to do," he said.

Thompson pointed out how government has tried to drive through reform with the adoption of open standards in order to digitise the public sector. "This and not agile was the foundational philosophy of government IT strategy," he said.

However, Thompson argued that due to difficulties in pushing through digital in some sectors, the emphasis has instead shifted towards an agile IT strategy, something he believes is the wrong move.

"Agile has almost become synonymous with digital and why? Because agile involves building your stuff all over again rather than consuming and leaves all those underlying pesky hierarchies," he argued, referencing fears of job losses due to digital innovation.

"Agile is funky and yet is unthreatening, the perfect storm," he continued, adding Universal Credit is the latest example of this fundamental failure to address the underlying structures of government.

Thompson argued that this strategy puts government in danger of going back to a world where each department is building its own technology, which raises the prospect of different sectors becoming disconnected from one another.

"The fact that it [government] using open source makes little difference; the tech is still special, it requires upgrades and maintenance, it often won't talk to any other tech and the UK remains fundamentally in its cul-de-sac, decoupled from the global marketplace," he said, describing agile as "truly nonsense".

Thompson said taxpayers need to realise the government is resistant to digital reforms.

"As shareholders in government we need to wake up to the fact our board members don't get it, that they're not even listening and that our employees are going to resist digital reinvention at every turn," he said, arguing there needs to be an open discussion about the future of digital in government.

"Digital is fundamentally not about new interfaces in the system, it's actually about fundamental business model change. Digital is therefore disingenuous and misleading unless there's an open and honest debate about how reinventing government is going to reshape the public sector and alter the nature of public sector jobs," said Thompson, who argued that digital has been badly managed by the government.

"The promise of digital is already starting to fade. There are some notable exceptions but from a digital point of view I think that we're being badly governed by our digital masters who have very little interest in anything I've just said," he said.

"As citizens we need to demand better of our leaders, so don't just do the easy tiny bits, tackle the hard bits as well," Thompson concluded.

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