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Fracture: A taster of IT guru Jerry Fishenden's plan to fix state IT

Jerry Fishenden lays out his vision of how to fix digital government in his new book, Fracture...

The subject of our recent interview, Jerry Fishenden -- former national Technology Officer for Microsoft in the UK, deputy CTO for the UK Government, and IT Director in the NHS amongst other high profile roles -- lays out his vision of how to fix digital government in his new book, Fracture...

Digital government will provide better public services built around the needs of citizens, reduce costs, and improve efficiency. It will help citizens become more involved in the democratic process. Sound familiar? It should—it’s what UK  governments have been promising for nearly thirty years, with improvements and savings “from government departments and agencies sharing common facilities and data and … from the rationalisation and redesign of government processes.”

Since the 1990s, hundreds of transactional interactions have been moved from paper onto a succession of pan-government websites. More recently, we’ve seen innovative apps from the likes of HMRC and the NHS. They’ve brought a welcome improvement to many of our interactions with the public sector—such as the joy of tax returns or renewing a passport. Yet as the UK government itself warned in 1996, “purely applying technology to existing working
practices, or at the customer interface, will not achieve the full benefits.”

Jerry Fishenden book fracture
Jerry Fishenden

In 2010, Martha Lane Fox aimed to re-energise the transformation agenda with her call for “revolution not evolution” in the design and operation of government. Yet the Public Accounts Committee recently noted that “departments have failed to understand the difference between improving what currently exists and real digital transformation, meaning that they have missed opportunities to move to modern, efficient ways of working.”

The lack of a “real digital transformation” isn’t surprising. Attempts to modernise and improve government soon conflict with departments’ daily operational pressures and responsibilities, along with their rigid administrative boundaries—boundaries that establish departments’ exclusive ministerial roles, policies, legislation, hierarchies,  funding, systems, and power. Similar boundaries limit the scope and impact of digitally-enabled improvements within and between central, devolved, regional, and local government. Their siloed remits, structures, budgets, and processes propagate the fragmentation, duplication, and overlap of public policies and their administration.

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This is partly why digital, data, and technology are routinely downgraded into automating existing processes and forms based on the movement of paper: it’s much easier and quicker to deliver than a true digital transformation. It’s also because digital is often misunderstood at a political level. One reason has been the poor quality of some so-called “digital training”. It gets stuck in the weeds, focusing on topics like Kanban and the lifecycle of an agile programme instead of exploring digital’s role as an agent of strategic political reform. It leads to a “poor understanding of digital business models and enabling technology amongst most politicians, advisers, and officials. This drives technology towards automating existing inefficiencies and perpetuating existing fiefdoms and legal entities, rather than redesigning organisations to improve the way our public services operate.”

These problems won’t be fixed until senior decision-makers understand digital is not primarily about writing code and building products to automate existing policies and transactional services, but about new ways of working, thinking, and operating. Digital, data, and technology can provide politicians with improved access to real-time information,
analyses, and insights; improve communication and collaboration, allowing citizens, businesses, employees, politicians, and policymakers to work together on the creation and development of better policies; and enhance transparency and accountability.

23 years ago, the UK government was already well aware that “many of the biggest challenges facing government do not fit easily into traditional Whitehall structures. Tackling drug addiction, modernising the criminal justice system,  encouraging sustainable development, or turning around run-down areas all require a wide range of departments and
agencies to work together. And we need better co-ordination and more teamwork right across government.” However, as former Permanent Secretary, Jonathan Slater, recently commented, “policymaking has always been distant from its customers” and “Whitehall’s remoteness from the public and frontline results in policymaking which is fundamentally
inadequate to address the challenges we face.”

Digital transformation was meant to provide THE big political opportunity to step back and rethink, redesign, and re-engineer our public sector and public institutions for the twenty- first century. A transformation that would provide better insight into citizens’ needs and experiences, inform cross-government policymaking, and improve policy outcomes and hence citizens’ lives. Governments would finally be able to focus on citizens and thematic, cross-cutting policy issues, rather than seeing everything through the distorting lens of Whitehall’s existing silos.

Leaving our public sector decorated with a sprinkle of digital transformation glitter, but no real reform, isn’t an option. So, which political party will be the first to reclaim and reboot digital transformation? Which will deliver the long- awaited and much-needed improvements to public policymaking and our public institutions? Where are the politicians willing and able to seize the opportunity to refocus digital, data, and technology and take them in a more strategic, more progressive, more citizen-focused, and more effective direction? And who will be the first to successfully use it as a force for social and economic good?

Fracture aims to play a small part in this process—to stimulate debate and political action, and to reawaken the political desire to improve the way our government and democracy work. It identifies 9 factors in the failure to deliver the longstanding political ambition to modernise and update government and provides a starter kit of 15 ideas to reboot transformation—to renew and strengthen democracy and our public sector.'

Fracture. The collision between technology and democracy—and how we fix it' by Jerry Fishenden is available now