So, a week into a new kind of government, what does the outlook for digital look like?
In terms of public sector IT at least, it looks broadly as through the principles and plans outlined by the Conservatives over the last six months are being brought into effect, with added emphasis on civil liberties.
Looking at the speeches, publications and campaign style of the Conservatives – and in particular Francis Maude (Cabinet Office, focus on efficiency & IT strategy), Jeremy Hunt (DCMS, dot com entrepreneur), George Osborne (Chancellor and open source fan) and Grant Shapps (digitally-engaged MP) – there seem to be three big ideas about the role and potential of the internet:
- Transparency: the internet as a publishing medium for government spending and Parliamentary expenses, to unleash ‘armchair auditors’ on government and politics to rebuild trust and promote consumer choice, e.g. publishing all government spending over £25k;
- Collaborative individualism: the internet as a decentralised network enabling individuals to come together as civil society to support their communities both altruistically and as an alternative mode of service provision to traditional state-run models, e.g. Wikipedia, the open source movement, involving the public in a ‘public reading stage’ of new Bills in Parliament;
- Efficiency: the internet as a lower-cost approach to delivering government IT programmes effectively including through smaller and more modular approaches, e.g. hosting health records via Google or Microsoft, increasing procurement from SMEs, and prohibiting the signing of very large (>£100m) IT contracts.
But what does that mean for jobbing webbies in the public sector? (n.b. of which I am no longer one, but more on that on a future occasion) Here are my predictions:
- Government IT will become more agile. Big IT is in a weak position right now, with unhappy customers having to work around the straightjacket of long-term contracts, and a Treasury review of all big contracts signed since the start of the year. There are serious and repeated suggestions of a government skunkworks as part of a more radical rethink of the recently published Government IT strategy. Sure, big desktop contracts and the planned gCloud are not likely to go away soon, but underneath their feet, there will be a strong expectation from the centre of government that digital should move fast, be cheap and learn from its own (small) mistakes. Likelihood of happening: 60%.
- Departments will begin to involve civil society in delivery, as well as policy. The ‘post bureaucratic age’ concept is a provocative label for a concept with much broader agreement: that addressing the deficit demands a slightly smaller State, and that this can be achieved in part through the enabling power of technology to convene individuals and civil society groups to help deliver public policy outcomes. Though rejecting the notion of a post-bureaucratic age, a great man once summed up the challenge to the role of government in terms of the need to become a collaborative state, working more closely with the civil society organisations – the Netmums and Horses Mouths – that the internet has made possible:
The collaborative state still requires leaders and enablers, doers and thinkers. It still requires public services but services with boundaries porous to external ideas… The future of government is to provide tools for empowerment, not to sit back and hope that laissez-faire adhocracy will suffice.
The Office for Civil Society in the Cabinet Office, and the fact that the first summit of civil society social entrepreneurs took place within a week of taking office, imply that this is going to be high priority, even if the shape of the programme is in its infancy. The challenge for still-bureaucratic government will be how to re-engineer procurement, commissioning and communications to support this kind of voluntarism, in place of traditional command-and-control. Likelihood of happening (in some areas, at least): 95%.
- We’ll see less enthusiasm for social media and digital engagement for its own sake amongst ministers. The last couple of years saw an explosion in the interest of politicians across the spectrum in using innovative technology to been seen to consult and to raise their own profiles online, frequently (but with honourable exceptions) managed by a member of their staff. The new political masters will be fewer in number (BIS seems to have shed three ministers, for example), more focussed and less keen on tools like Twitter, for example. Where tools deliver practical value – like Grant Shapps’ famous email list to 10,000 of his constituents, or short pieces to camera which extend the reach of a speech – they’ll be used. Likelihood of happening: 50% (politicians remain, after all, personalities in public life)
- By contrast, we’ll see a lot more online policy engagement and idea generation. Today’s Coalition Programme announcement (itself intended to be a commentable document, I understand) ended with a clear commitment from the Prime Minister to involve the public directly in shaping the new Freedom Bill, as well as establishing a new Public Reading stage for Bills in Parliament before they become law. Administrative government has always been keen on the process of consultation; but it seems as though political government may be willing to make a firm commitment to take the wisdom of online crowds on board (and there’s still the prospect of the £1m prize for a suitable online platform which makes it possible, maybe). Likelihood of happening: 95%
- Power will shift in central government at least from Communications & Marketing teams, back to Policy and the front line. There is always talk from politicians about reducing the cost of marketing, but with a public plan to reduce the COI budget to its 1997 level (£163m down from £391m) that’s starting to look like it might happen; the previous government had already committed to a 25% cut in marketing spending across the board [PDF], albeit on a leisurely timescale. Government comms teams have seen these threats come and go over the years, but this time it looks serious, with money (and influence) moving back to policy teams delivering the major programmes of the new administration and a disinclination to be seen to be ‘spinning’. Whether smart, targetted digital marketing helps save the credibility of government marketing as a whole in a post-TV advertising era will be an interesting story to follow in the coming years. Likelihood of happening: 80%.
- There will be renewed interest in how digital can save money by enabling new forms of internal collaboration. Thoughtful people have long argued that the real potential of social media in the public sector is in internal collaboration within and between public bodies. As CIOs and Finance Directors look to reduce travel expenses and improve staff productivity, expect to see more interest in tools like Huddle and Basecamp to support remote working beyond the GSI and on e-learning packages to deliver training. If smart folk can make the case internally for the productivity benefits of LinkedIn or Twitter, expect to see more strategic use of social media tools too. Likelihood of happening: 70%.
- The rise of the open data movement will accelerate. Commitment to opening up government data has already been publicly affirmed, but expect to see a shift in emphasis from the potential benefits of open data to expose poor performance and motivate improvements in public services, towards the two other pillars: transparency in spending and lobbying; and perhaps especially the potential commercial benefits in providing the material for new enterprises and civil society groups (watch out for the the promised syndication of Directgov content in the next month or so). Likelihood of happening: 100%.
- The rethinking of government structures and programmes will introduce new opportunities for lightweight and social digital approaches. It’s a truism that a new government will have new priorities and – even though most central government departments escaped without too much immediate reorganisation – that it will inevitably set up new organisations with a sense of mission and desire to do things differently: the Office for Civil Society and Office for Budgetary Responsibility seem like two such examples. New organisations and teams tend to be more open to creative approaches, and supportive of pilots of lightweight digital tools to help them engage staff with the new mission and create a strong public profile. Likelihood of happening: 80%.
- There will be a renewed focus on digital skills. For all the talk of Government 2.0 and 3.0, there’s some bug fixing of 1.0 still to do to meet the needs of users who aren’t upgrading anytime soon. Use of email, search optimisation and strategy, accessibility, basic digital marketing, mobile integration and usability will all emerge as the drivers of more productive and efficient IT – without which more ambitious ideas such as personalisation or engagement will struggle. Government digital teams have suffered from outsourcing over the last decade or more, but look out for a renewed interest in the skills and activities really needed to optimise digital tools. Likelihood of happening: 70%.
- The number of contractors and consultants working on public sector digital projects will grow. What? This is a more speculative prediction, but with pay and recruitment freezes imminent or already in place in many organisations, as people leave teams they will leave skills gaps which need to be plugged, if not by management consultants, then by freelance and contract staff with lower overheads or based outside the organisation – hopefully with a clearer mandate to coach and mentor civil servants to help transfer knowledge in key areas. Likelihood of happening: 50%.
It’s worth keeping our feet on the ground here. There was a nice piece in the Guardian earlier this week by Mark Davies, former Special Advisor to Jack Straw:
When the change took place that brought forth the Lib-Con coalition, all that happened in my own department was that six ministers and two special advisers left the office, and new ones arrived. The other 90,000 civil servants remained. Any minister or adviser who wants to be effective needs to work with that in mind, and recognise that progress will only be achieved by harnessing the departmental machine.
It will be fascinating to watch things unfold over the next few months.
Photo credit: Number10Gov on Flickr