Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for the Digital Economy, is leading the call for suggestions from public and industry on the UK’s Digital Strategy. He sets out 4 key ingredients for success, the second of which, under the heading Transforming Government, states:
“…government services need to be as good as the best consumer services. My colleague Matt Hancock is bringing renewed energy to this agenda, driving a transformation to create what he calls a ‘smartphone state’. Renewing your passport should be as easy as buying a book online, so what more can we do to make sure interacting with government is as simple and seamless as possible?”
I support the aspiration to make interacting with government as simple and seamless as possible, but as a Civil Servant I also believe there is a strong case for making interaction within government equally slick. With an increasing demand for the Civil Service, and the wider public sector, to become more efficient and deliver its outputs with fewer staff it is now time for a transformation of the machinery of interaction within government.
The government’s approach to digital transformation to date has, quite rightly, focussed on the large volume transactional services which offer substantive savings if they can be redesigned as digital services. Such transformation is often described with reference to the way people interact with commercial companies – “Renewing your passport should be as easy as buying a book online”. But the global impact of the web has not just changed the nature of our commercial activities, it has also changed how we manage our own information, how we consume entertainment, how we connect socially and how we organise sport, voluntary organisations and other clubs.
So if renewing your passport should be as easy as buying a book online, I reckon finding the notes I took from a work related conference two years ago should be as easy as finding my family photographs from my holidays the same year on Instagram. Referring to the two-line note I got six months ago from the boss with some key guidance should be as easy as quoting the ID code of the tweet from my swimming coach that I was @mentioned in at the start of the season. Sharing an idea with 50 colleagues on an intranet should be as easy as writing this blog post. Contributing to a government policy best practice knowledge base should be as easy as editing Wikipedia. And so on.
Such ideas are not new. It’s nearly a decade since Andrew McAfee published Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration, and longer since DC Andrus wrote The Wiki and the Blog: Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community. To give credit to the Government Digital Service they did promote, in July 2014, the need for Civil Servants to have the confidence to try some new digital tools and for us to use the digital skills from your personal life in the workplace. Their guidance document Internet tools for civil servants: an introduction is a really useful listing / overview of 30+ tools and services. But dig deeper, into the linked guidance from DH and MoJ, and the limitations with regard to security (even at Official), privacy and ‘keeping the official record’ start to emerge.
In general, these issues tend be pushed back onto the individual to resolve. I am very much in favour of public servants being trusted to make professional judgements within the context of their work. But if we want to drive a change towards more modern and efficient tools we should make it easy. And at the moment, it’s too easy to carry on using a clunky combination of email, attached documents and corporate file shares rather than put the effort into assessing whether an online collaboration tool is fit for purpose – and then working out how to transfer the ‘final version’ into the official record.
There are some departments and agencies that have made significant progress in providing combinations of services and hosting which allow them to encourage staff use more readily. I’ll declare an interest here – I have been heavily involved in my own organisation’s implementation of a semantic wiki and an enterprise social network. But this approach has its own problems as it can end up being more difficult to share knowledge and information with other government colleagues. And transfer of information to official systems of record remains an additional burden.
To tackle these problems I suggest a series of related actions need to be part of the future digital strategy for transforming government:
- The guidance on internet tools should be regularly updated with significantly clearer explanations of the suitability of each toolset for different types of information and operating context (recognising for example that DCMS, BIS, DH and MOD probably have different threat profiles and risk appetites);
- The Government Digital Service should undertake to provide a set of common digital tools on a cross government basis to enable easy collaboration within and between different elements of the public sector*;
- An appropriate body (the Advisory Council on National Records and Archives?) should be tasked to consider how best to update the Lord Chancellor’s Code of Practice on the management of records issued under section 46 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. This may, of course, result in recommendation to change primary legislation.
The last point deserves some explanation. Public authorities are obliged to maintain records under a combination of statutes and codes including FOI 2000 and the Public Records Act 1958. The latter, or course, was written in the era of cardboard folders containing typewritten letters filed on the right and handwritten minute sheets on the left. More modern communications, such as email, are mentioned in the s46 code. But the fundamental ethos of the public record remains centred on electronic versions of documents within electronic versions of folders. The public sector as a whole will not be able to embrace the benefits of the web’s third decade and beyond if it remains shackled to a records approach designed three decades before the web was invented.
*Civil Servants with long memories may recall the CivilMedia suite that the Cabinet Office used to sponsor. CivilWiki, CivilTalk and CivilBlogs went when the COI was closed in Dec 2011. The fourth member of the suite, CivilPages, survived and was rebadged as Collaborate which was available until Dec 2015 when TNA withdrew the service.
Update (22 Feb 16) – This post previously contained a final section relating to ontology. I’ve removed this – it didn’t sit well with the main theme and requires some further thought. It may appear in a future post.