It’s five years since Martha Lane Fox tempted me into digital government. The mission: put the needs of users at the heart of the design of public services.
The report we wrote in 2010 was subtitled “Revolution, not evolution.”
Martha, we got that bit 100% right. And the conversation inside government has changed. It’s increasingly about the redesign of services centred on the needs of users, and the skills the civil service needs to deliver in the digital age.
Tom Watson was right, too. The zeal of the vanguard has been essential.
I’m leaving the civil service at the end of September.
I’ve done my turn manning the barricades. I’m keen to learn some new stuff.
I know I’ll miss the place horribly, but I’m confident that the Government Digital Service is in capable hands, under the wise leadership of Stephen Foreshew-Cain.
It’s grown up since its early, scrappy days in a grotty, now demolished office in Lambeth. Much of the culture and practice established back in 2011 has now become the new normal for governments. Good.
Yet, for all the world-class skills inside GDS, the Aviation House lot are now but part of a wide and deepening diaspora of digital talent stretching across Whitehall and beyond. And one that’s packed full of the next generation of HMG’s
Your turn, gang. Back yourselves; you’re awesome.
I’ve learned a huge amount over the last five years. I owe so many people so much, not least those who looked out for me when times were tough. Mike Bracken’s post says “thank you” with more eloquence than my engineer-brain can muster, though I must re-iterate his recognition of the debt we owe to the digital gov pioneers who came before GDS, and upon whose shoulders we stood. Unlike us, they did not always have the backing of a totally committed Minister. On which note, thank you, Francis Maude.
Since 2010 I’ve worked all over HMG, one way and another. I’ve had a proper good rummage under the bonnet of the state.
And while criss-crossing the UK I’ve met amazing digital teams doing the hard work to make things simple. Incredible people, civil servants. Doing stuff that matters.
But I’ve also learned a crunchy lesson; in the 21st century, the public deserves better than the 19th century institutions of Whitehall are capable of delivering.
The first project I did as a civil servant was to re-imagine how government should present itself on the Internet.
The last project I’m doing as a civil servant is to re-imagine how government should institutionally reinvent itself to be of the Internet.
The latter offers a huge prize, there for the taking by any nation bold enough to reinvent its civil service institutions.
The first government to reinvent its institutions such that their role and values are native to the Internet era will find that it can transform both the efficiency and empathy of public services, whilst creating new digital infrastructure offering the private sector a global competitive advantage. And that’s even before we get onto the potential positive impact on trust, data security and democracy.
The best, most successful teams (Digital UC, I’m looking at you) have demanded and gained the freedom to completely redesign not just their services, but their entire organisation – its culture, operations, skills, location, kit, recruitment, procurement – the lot.
That this freedom is seemingly only ever gained after a crisis gets to the heart of the problem. Absent a crisis, the scale of institutional change demanded by this digital era is too scary. But, as Mike put it in his Institute for Government speech last autumn, “government is not immune to the seismic changes that digital technology has brought to bear.”
Transformed digital services require transformed digital institutions.
In the UK, the imperative of such a radical re-invention of the civil service is yet to be recognised. It will require bold, brave, reforming leadership from the centre; leadership with the conviction, commitment and authority required to successfully challenge the shape, the size and the dominant culture of Whitehall.
Come that revolution, I’ll be first in line to serve HMG again.
So, in October I’m off to pastures as-yet-unidentified-even-by-me.
Your ideas as to what I might do next are most welcome.
Safe to assume I’m up for trouble.