By Tony Collins
Today The Times reports, in a series of articles, of tensions in Whitehall between ministers and an “unwilling civil service” over the pace of change.
It says a “permanent cold war” is being conducted with the utmost courtesy. It refers to Downing Street’s lack of control.
In one of the Times articles, Sir Antony Jay, co-creator of the “Yes Minister” TV series, writes that the civil service is more prepared to cut corners than in the 1970s but hasn’t really changed. “If a civil servant from the 1970s came back today they would probably slot in pretty easily,” says Jay.
Politicians want “eye-catching” change while civil servants “don’t want to be blamed for cock-ups”, he says.
Separately, Mike Bracken, Executive Director of Digital in the Cabinet Office, has suggested that a frustration with the system extends to CIOs, executive directors to corporate change agents.
Bracken created the Government Digital Service which is an exemplar of digital services. His philosophy is it’s cheaper and better to build, rent or pull together a new product, or at least a minimum feasible product, than go through the “twin horrors of an elongated policy process followed by a long procurement”.
Bracken has the eye of an outsider looking in. Before joining the Cabinet Office in July 2011 he was Director of Digital Development at the Guardian.
Bracken’s blog gives an account of his 18 months in office and why it is so hard to effect change within departments. I’ve summarised his blog in the following bullet points, at the risk of oversimplifying his messages:
- After joining the Cabinet Office in 2011 Bracken made a point of meeting senior officials who’d had exalted job titles, from CIOs and executive directors to corporate change agents. “While many of them banked some high-profile achievements, the collective reflection was frustration with and at the system,” says Bracken.
Civil service versus citizen’s needs
- “I’ve lost count of the times when, in attempting to explain a poorly performing transaction or service, an explanation comes back along the lines of ‘Well, the department needs are different…’ How the needs of a department or an agency can so often trump the needs of the users of public services is beyond me,” says Bracken.
- Policy-making takes priority over delivery, which makes the civil service proficient at making policy and poor at delivery. “Delivery is too often the poor relation to policy,” says Bracken. Nearly 20,000 civil servants were employed in ‘policy delivery’ in 2009. Each government department produces around 171 policy or strategy documents on average each year. Bracken quotes one civil servant as saying: “The strategy was flawless but I couldn’t get anything done.”
Are citizen needs poisonous to existing suppliers?
- Departmental needs take priority over what the public wants. Bracken suggests that user needs – the needs of the citizen – are poison to the interests of policymakers and existing suppliers. “Delivery based on user need is like kryptonite to policy makers and existing suppliers, as it creates rapid feedback loops and mitigates against vendor lock-in,” says Bracken.
- “When it comes to digital, the voices of security and the voices of procurement dominate policy recommendations. The voice of the user [citizen] barely gets a look-in. ( Which also explains much of the poor internal IT, but that really is another story.)”
A vicious circle
Bracken says that new IT often mirrors clunky paper-based processes. [It should usually reflect new, simplified and standardised processes.] “For digital services, we usually start with a detailed policy. Often far too detailed, based not just on Ministerial input, but on substantial input from our existing suppliers of non-digital services. We then look to embed that in current process, or put simply, look for a digital version of how services are delivered in different channels. This is why so many of our digital services look like clunky, hard-to-use versions of our paper forms: because the process behind the paper version dictates the digital thinking.”
Then things take a turn for the worse, says Bracken. “The policy and process are put out to tender, and the search for the elusive ‘system’ starts. Due to a combination of European procurement law and a reliance on existing large IT contracts, a ‘system’ is usually procured, at great time and expense.
“After a long number of months, sometimes years, the service is unveiled. Years after ‘requirements’ were gathered, and paying little attention to the lightning-quick changes in user expectation and the digital marketplace, the service is unveiled to all users as the finished product.
“We then get the user feedback we should have had at the start. Sadly it’s too late to react. Because these services have been hard-wired, like the IT contract which supplied them, our services simply can’t react to the most valuable input: what users think and how they behave.
“As we have found in extreme examples, to change six words the web site of one of these services can take months and cost a huge amount, as, like IT contracts, they are seen as examples of ‘change control’ rather than a response to user need.
“If this 5-step process looks all too familiar that’s because you will have seen it with much of how Government approaches IT. It’s a process which is defined by having most delivery outsourced, and re-inforced by having a small number of large suppliers adept at long-term procurement cycles.
“It is, in short, the opposite of how leading digital services are created, from Amazon to British Airways, from Apple to Zipcar, there is a relentless focus on, and reaction to, user need…”
GOV.UK the civil service exemplar?
Bracken says: “In the first 10 days after we released the full version of GOV.UK in October 2012, we made over 100 changes to the service based on user feedback, at negligible cost. And the final result of this of this approach is a living system, which is reactive to all user needs, including that of policy colleagues with whom we work closely to design each release.”
Bracken says long procurements can be avoided. “When we created GOV.UK, we created an alpha of the service in 12 weeks … We made it quickly, based on the user needs we knew about… As we move towards a Beta version, where the service is becoming more comprehensive, we capture thousands of pieces of feedback, from user surveys, A/B testing and summative tests and social media input.
“This goes a long way to inform our systems thinking, allowing us to use the appropriate tools for the job, and then replace them as the market provides better products or as our needs change. This of course precludes lengthy procurements and accelerates the time taken for feedback to result in changes to live services.”
More big government projects could follow GOV.UK’s example, though some officials in their change-resistant departments would say their systems are too complex for easy-to-reach solutions. But a love of complexity is the hiding place of the dull-minded.
The Times describes the conflicts between the civil servants and ministers as a “crisis”. But conflicts between civil servants and ministers are a good thing. The best outcomes flow from a state of noble tension.
It’s natural for some senior civil servants to oppose change because it can disrupt the smooth running of government, leading potentially to the wrong, or no payments, to the most vulnerable. It’s up to ministers like Francis Maude to oppose this argument on the basis that the existing systems of administration are inefficient, partly broken and much too costly.
A lazy dependence on the way things are will continue to enfeeble the civil service. Ministers who push for simplicity will always come into conflict with civil servants who quietly believe that simplicity demeans the important work they do. To effect change some sensible risks are worth taking.
The reports of a covert and courteous war between parts of the civil service and ministers are good news. They are signs that change is afoot. Consensus is far too expensive.