Digital isn’t E Gov in better clothes

I read a couple of blogs yesterday that prodded me into blogging action (it’s been a while). Mark Thompson wrote (here), in response to Andrea Di Maios Gartner post (here) saying that digital government is just making E government work. I am not going to critique the work of two people who clearly know a lot more than I do about technology but I am very concerned about the way I and my colleagues in government are seen by Gartner (assuming of course Andrea’s views are his company’s).

There are a lot of us in the UK government working hard to make Digital services a reality and no one, and I mean no one, thinks this is E government with a better fitting suit. For me the main difference is the way the business thinks.

We are building services which enable citizens, and importantly others acting for citizens, to interact with government in ways that work for them. This is to some extent about technology, but is mainly about changing the way we view risk. No longer are ‘we’ the ‘government’ the only people who can deliver public services. Digital is about some direct delivery but increasingly you will see platforms that enable others to deliver and joining things up in new and different ways.

E government was about building systems to deliver the same services we were delivering manually. Digital is about different services, often not directly delivered or designed by us (and us being OK about that).

One of the problems with this approach is that our ‘Big Supplier’ base have struggled to keep up. The cynics amongst you would suggest they have deliberately chosen not to keep up, as this breaks up their commercial models.

The area that intrigues me most is why suppliers to business keep trying to interest me in the way things work. When I bought my first couple of computers for home use the salesmen tried to talk to me about the processor/RAM, etc, but over time it was assumed that computers “just work” and the choice becomes a silver one or red one. The PC became a digital service. There seems to be a maturity curve for sales conversations moving from how something works to what it does.

The same maturity curve was (more slowly) followed in that other high-tech purchase we all make, buying a car. I don’t doubt that the anti-skid system within my car’s electronics is really clever but a detailed discussion wasn’t the centre piece of my purchasing conversation. We did talk about the fact that the car wouldn’t roll over if my 18-year-old misjudged a corner though. And yet when technology vendors come to see me we quickly end up in conversations I don’t fully understand with all sorts of clever reasons why they can’t / wont solve my actual business problems.

If Andrea and his Gartner colleagues genuinely think that digital is re-warmed E government and are advising their clients of that, it is no wonder that the range of large suppliers who really ‘get’ digital government is still quite small.

The question for anyone reading this on the supply side is “are you an IT / technology company, or are you really a digital services company?” From where I sit there are too many of the former and not enough of the latter.

Those of us trying to build digital services are simply not interested any more in building our own technology.  We want people around us who can help us create services that citizens value today and have the flexibility to change to what they may want tomorrow. E government wasn’t ever even close to that aspiration, regardless of how it was dressed.

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About iansthoughts

Chief Operating Officer at DEFRA, and former council Chief Executive. All views expressed are my own and not formal policy of my employers current or past.
This entry was posted in digital, Government, Software, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Digital isn’t E Gov in better clothes

  1. Tim Manning says:

    If I think back to the “eGovernment” period, ignoring any intent of those driving it, the reality on the ground was that ‘digital’ was an add-on – an additional channel added to existing services. It rarely drove a re-design of these services.

    In terms of the use of IT, the order of the day were large scale, costly and inflexible enterprise (package-based) applications. Everything was IT driven, rather than IT enabled. Much time was spent trying to get the ‘business’ to fit the IT – most attempts ending in varying degrees of failure. There was only a half-hearted attempt to introduce common standards. Systems continued not to talk to each other and data remained firmly locked away. All this being delivered by an increasingly small number of suppliers.

    Today’s Digital agenda is still evolving, but some key distinctions can already be observed:

    1) The Digital service is the primary channel/delivery mechanism
    2) The Digital service is a catalyst for the re-design of the service
    3) A much stronger emphasis on Design and Architecture
    4) A preference for ‘small IT’, over ‘big IT’
    5) An emphasis on ‘Open’, in all its forms
    6) The opening up of the marketplace to smaller suppliers

    I for one feel rather more hopeful (and comfortable as an architect and designer) this time around. Although it remains early days.

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