03 September 2013

Making the most of Government data might not usually grab headlines, but with the new Policy Exchange report on digital government complementing many of the challenges we raise in our recent Whitehall Monitor report, there’s clear pressure on government to step up its response to the information age.

As a former consultant, I’m always somewhat sceptical of the ‘by doing X, Government could save £ billions’ type of pronouncements.* But, much of the underlying analysis in Policy Exchange’s new Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger report on digital government will strike a chord with those familiar with this territory, and these are arguments worth making again. Government has made huge steps in moving the digital agenda forward, but as the report clearly shows, there’s still a long way to go.

The paper complements many of the challenges we discovered in accessing data on government in our new Whitehall Monitor 2013 report. It notes that in the US, President Obama has issued an executive order making data that is open and machine-readable the default for government – as our report shows, the UK lags some way behind our American counterparts on this front. Like us, Policy Exchange also stress that this information must be useful to decision makers – highlighting in their report the benefits of better management information, open pricing information and better evidence to support policy-making. On the policy-making evidence, they even have an intriguing suggestion that there should be Accounting-Officer style responsibilities to ensure that data or evidence will be collected to enable rapid evaluation of any particular course of action. As they observe, the focus should be on: “‘actionable metrics’ that can be used to generate insights, as opposed to ‘vanity metrics’ which may paint managers in a good light but add little to their ability to make better decisions.” This is also something that Howard Shiplee, the new Universal Credit chief, acknowledges as a problem in government in his recent article.

Turning to the IT side of the digital discussion, the report builds on the case we made in System Error for flexible, iterative development of IT within government. Policy Exchange state: “Iterative product releases should be the norm across wide areas of government activity, including policymaking, with actionable insights coming back to managers in real time.” They sensibly also caution that these data insights are the start of an informed discussion, and that they should serve to help inform decisions, rather than be used to justify set positions or to replace leaders with algorithms altogether.

Finally, they note: “As is so often the case with discussions about digital government, the core challenges relate to people more than they do to technology… The real challenges are around mindsets, culture, change management and attitudes to risk.” This is something that wider research by the Institute on transformations in departments and the challenges around implementing civil service reform would certainly support. The question will be, are the leaders across government ready for the next steps in making government more digital?

*Disclaimer – I freely acknowledge that this is a device that I have used liberally myself.