Professor slams digital efforts of 'website-obsessed' government

Data, platforms, agility, users... buzzwords

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A professor of digital governance has slammed Whitehall's IT 'transformation' efforts to date, blaming an obsession with websites for obstructing any real digitally-enabled revamps.

Vishanth Weerakkody, who works at Brunel University, said: "Digital technology undoubtedly has huge potential to contribute to the functions of government and public administration, but so far the building of information portals and putting transactions on government websites have not realised the great expectations for it in terms of 'transforming government'."

In his paper,Digital Government: overcoming the systemic failure of transformation [pdf], he writes that real change needs to come about via government policy, rather than being the medium through which citizens interact with government.

"Before the internet no one would have set out to transform government and public administration by redesigning forms and guidance pamphlets. They would do that to make life easier for people, and save time in administration, but that's all: they wouldn't expect to alter anything else."

He said the university's research shows that the expectations for digital technology applied to government and public administration have not been realised "by a very large margin".

He said: "This especially applies to the notion of 'transformation' — something that sounds important but no one seems clear exactly what it means."

The Register has previously critiqued the Cabinet Office's own cost saving claims specifically with regards to digital transformation.

Weerakkody acknowledged that "many good things have happened" but there have now been two or three phases of "trying to 'make government digital' over the last 20 years — mostly reinventing the previous programmes with new labels."

Consequently, it has "not really taken us beyond information provision and a few online transactions."

He added: "Indeed, there have been no new ideas for over a decade and what we see now is just an assortment of propositions about technology, data, platforms, agility, users and so on that don’t really connect into the practicality of what governments and public bodies actually do in the real world."

Weerakkdody is not the first government IT watcher to observe that many digital transformation efforts over the last 20 years have effectively reinvented and rediscovered the same things.

Jerry Fishenden, a technologist and the author of Digitizing Government, has compiled links to more than 80 digital government initiatives documents over that period.

Weerakkdody concluded: "After extensive study of both the real world and academic research, we have concluded that even the latest efforts are, in the words of Russell Ackoff, just 'doing the wrong thing righter' and therefore 'making things wronger'."

However, for many reformers there is still a strong case for overhauling government IT - not least because of the expensive and ineffective practices associated with huge system integrators.

Last year the Government Digital Service was awarded £450m to transform Whitehall. But what the strategy is for tackling clunky legacy IT and costly contracts remains unclear. ®


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