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Digital policy veteran Jerry Fishenden: We need our "digital mojo" back

"I want to stimulate debate about how we can rediscover and re-energise" digital ambitions

Jerry Fishenden’s career has criss-crossed between the private and public sector but the golden thread that runs through his work has been a dynamic combination of what I have always taken to be a healthy scepticism combined with an almost evangelical zeal for the power of technology to afford change.

I first met Jerry more than 20 years ago, writes Martin Veitch, when he was the National Technology Officer for Microsoft in the UK, often helping to build bridges and mutual understanding between government and the software giant. On the other side of the fence, his previous roles include interim Deputy Chief Technology Officer for the UK Government, Head of Business Systems for the City of London financial regulator, Officer of the House of Commons, and IT Director in the NHS. He continues to be a major influencer: he was the specialist adviser to the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee inquiry into Digital Government, and the Public Administration Select Committee inquiry into Government IT.

However, catching up with him this week by phone and email, he disagrees with my perception of him as a sceptic when it comes to government and digital transformation, despite continuing questionable decisions such as this, reported recently by The Stack.

“Actually, I’ve always been an optimist about what digital, data and technology can offer government,” he says, “but critical of the frequent lack of political understanding, vision, capabilities and delivery. But I guess people might level that criticism at politics in general, not just nearly three decades of efforts to deliver a digital transformation.

“If you look at earlier political ambitions for digital, it’s notable how much more radical they were — aiming to redesign and renew democracy and our public institutions. In 1998, the government was aiming to use technology to ‘facilitate fundamental changes in the relationships between the citizen and the state, and between nation states, with implications for the democratic process and structures of government’.

Right now, it feels like we’ve gone backwards, with digital seen as a means of automation rather than structural reform Jerry Fishenden

“Right now, it feels like we’ve gone backwards, with digital seen as a means of automation rather than structural reform. Part of the reason I wrote my new book is to stimulate debate about how we can rediscover and re-energise the original level of political ambition and deliver a digital transformation that helps redesign and renew democracy and our public institutions.”

Outside the “day job”, Jerry Fishenden has always kept busy too. He is a composer, a collector of soundscapes and a prolific writer. His imminent book, Fracture, zeroes in on that topic. But what, I asked, will it bring to those in the corridors of power and how open will power brokers be to change?

“I wanted to make time to step back and take stock of where we are: to explore why government remains so far away from its original ideals, and why digital has rarely been applied to maximum beneficial effect. Digital, data, and technology increasingly influence and shape our politics and geopolitics, societies, economies, and democracy itself. And yet they’re rarely used effectively as a strategic rather than an operational asset. Government ‘digital strategies’ have atrophied over the years: instead of delivering revolution not evolution, they’ve automated the silo policies, organisational structures, customs, and practices of a bygone age.

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“A true digital transformation requires governments to adopt digital practices and cultures: citizen participation in the co-creation and co-design of policies and the processes of public administration; continuous feedback and data to inform and update policymaking; rapid experimentation to learn and adapt faster; improved organisation design; and cross-government systems for efficiency, agility, and scale.

“The failure to deliver this digital transformation means policymaking is missing out on one of the biggest benefits of the digital age: the opportunity to root itself in a citizen-centred, iterative cycle of objective learning and refinement. As a 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.”

Jerry Fishenden interview
Jerry Fishenden: Wants to help politicans get their digital mojo back.

Fracture aims to help politicians get their digital mojo back. And yes, I can see you’re looking sceptical about that too, improved transparency and accountability, for example, might not be top of certain politicians’ wish lists right now. But, as I say, I’m actually an optimist: I’ll let you know how open the power brokers are to making improvements after they’ve read the book!”

Fishenden can probably be counted as veteran of the state tech scene and has appeared as a Zelig-like figure in digitisation of UK infrastructure. How would he look back over his career, I asked.

“I guess my career has been about 50/50 between private and public sectors,” he says, “although even in the private sector much of my time has been spent working with public sector colleagues and organisations. My experiences of working in the public sector started in the NHS as an IT Director. I then became an Officer of the House of Commons, setting up Parliament’s first ever data and video network and related services. And then I moved on to be Head of Business Systems at the City of London financial regulator. A few years later, I was persuaded into the private sector, and spent over a decade at Microsoft before leaving to become an independent consultant.

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“Career highlights so far would include setting up Parliament’s first ever video and data network and a range of related services, including putting Parliament on the web. The server sat under a desk in my office at first, and staff of both the Commons and Lords walked new content over on floppy disks! Parliament is also where I became acclimatised to working closely with politicians — MPs and Peers —which included a fortnightly appearance in front of the Administration Committee. It was a useful training.

"One of the most notable achievements was being the lead product manager for some of the platforms delivered by the Cabinet Office under the Government Gateway brand from 2000 onwards. The UK was well ahead of its time in recognising the value of pan-government platforms back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The team went from a standing start to delivering an identification, authentication, and transaction handling system within a three-month period. It showed what can be achieved with the right team making smart use of open standards and available capabilities rather than trying to build everything from scratch. Some 10 years after it launched, the National Audit Office reported that the Government Gateway was being used by 77 stakeholders across national and local public organisations and was providing 227 live services.

Jerry Fishenden: The early days of the GDS were exciting times

“The closest I’ve been to that type of ground-breaking experience in Whitehall since was in the early days of the Government Digital Service (GDS). It had a similar vibe: they were exciting times, times when anything seemed possible and when the political and digital ambitions were briefly re-united again. However, right now, as the Public Accounts Committee recently commented, ‘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’.”

Does he feel that the Government appoints the right people and has the right culture and structures to support transformation?

“Politically, there’s currently a less mature understanding of digital and its relevance to politics and policymaking. To be fair, I think one reason is that digital is often poorly communicated to politicians and senior officials. Training focuses on topics like Kanban, the lifecycle of an Agile programme, and the Scrum framework. It’s the equivalent of explaining to politicians and senior policymakers the nuts and bolts of how a car factory assembly line works, when they need to be designing a better form of transportation. 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.

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“It’s not helped, of course, by governments rarely appointing a Minister who understands digital. While there’ve been a few notable exceptions, often the digital role is given to a transitory junior appointee who proudly professes their ignorance of all things digital before moving on to a ‘proper’ political job. The absence of a meaningful and sustained political focus and direction can be seen in the decline in the scope and ambition of government digital strategies. From a high-water mark in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and for a brief time after 2010, they’ve withered into a minor subset of the original ambitions.

“By contrast with the political capabilities, within the public sector there are people and teams doing great work. I’m thinking, for example, of the recent world-leading work of the COVID-19 digital team, developing open APIs and data to provide near real-time analysis and insights. It’s a brilliant reminder of what’s possible, and why we need a mandate for open APIs right across government (similar to the mandate that produced Open Banking). The public sector has some amazing individuals and teams who can make a real difference—they just need to be given the political backing and resources to make it happen.

Right now, however, it feels as if the orchestral parts of a great, spine-tingling score have been scattered to the wind, leaving the individual instrumentalists to wander lost and alone, playing at random with no co-ordination and overall direction. What’s missing is a conductor, someone to bring all the parts and instrumentalists together to produce something that’s far greater and more important than the sum of its parts. And, to be clear, it’s a political leadership role I’m thinking about—perhaps some sort of heavy-hitting, long-term, Cabinet-level Commissioner of Government Transformation.”

What does/did Fishenden make of Dominic Cummings and his er, interesting perspective on technocracy and the barriers he observed to change in government operations?

“He’s clearly a smart, if provocative, guy and sometimes puts his finger precisely on a problem. But his lack of practical experience in technology and large organisational change shine through in his proposed solutions. There’s no point breaking and smashing things down unless you have something better, and viable, to put in its place. But one area where I do agree with him is the need for a closer integration between technology and policymaking in Whitehall. As Bruce Schneier says, ‘not enough policymakers realise that they need scientists and technologists … as part of their teams’.

“However, proposals for a more technocratic, algorithmic government are not only poorly informed about the reality of many algorithms (including those sexed-up with the label ‘artificial intelligence’), but mistakenly — and potentially dangerously — cast the citizen/state democratic relationship into a reductionist transactional one of ‘users’ and (algorithmic) ‘services’. There’s a quote from Arthur C. Clarke that I use in the book: ‘Mathematics is only a tool, though an immensely powerful one. No equations, however impressive and complex, can arrive at the truth if the initial assumptions are incorrect.’

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“Creating a more centralised, presidential, and technology-driven state is the antithesis of where digital and politics should be heading in a twenty-first century democracy. They’re proposals that sound more like a description of the toxic, dystopian future in the sights of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rather than a modern, liberal democracy. If we’re going to make better headway with complex cross-cutting policy challenges like inter-generational poverty or juvenile re-offending, we need to take advantage of the networked and collaborative ways of working enabled by technology, helping to break down the policymaking silos and institutional boundaries of top-down, centralised, command-and-control government. Doing so will help create a form of democratic governance that gets away from stale dogmatic debates about central versus local government: a form of governance in which devolution is achieved through an improved national operating model, one where participation, power, resources, and decisions operate at the most relevant, appropriate, and accountable level—national, regional, local, or hyper-local.

“I think most people working in the public sector recognise the need for change and that digital can help them transition to better ways of working and organising. But they also know you don’t make that type of transition by petulantly smashing and breaking things, particularly when some of the most vulnerable people in society depend upon the smooth functioning and availability of the state. Successful change happens through a series of practical, iterative, incremental steps. It involves working closely with citizens and public employees to learn what works and what doesn’t, fine-tuning as you go. It’s this sort of systemic, step-by-step approach to digital transformation that Fracture explores—and which requires a renewed, cross-party political understanding and commitment if it’s ever going to happen.

So, finally, if there were just one thing we could do today to create a functioning digitally-empowered state, what would that be?

“Tell people to buy a copy of Fracture when it comes out in mid-February? More seriously, the failure to achieve a meaningful digital transformation is ultimately political, not technical. It would be encouraging to see a political party spend its time in opposition more effectively, stepping back to research and re-examine social, economic, and geopolitical problems in flexible, cross-cutting, and imaginative ways. Ways that look at solving problems from the perspective of the outcomes they’re likely to have on individuals and communities rather than through the distorting prism of governments’ historical administrative boundaries.

“The ambitious and aspirational original ideals of digital government won’t be delivered until politicians and political parties weave digital, data, and technology into the fabric of their thinking, their manifesto promises, and their policies. Technology can empower the individual and renew and improve the democratic relationship between the citizen and the state: but to do so, it needs democratic governments to shape it as an immutable force for good.”

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