Government ‘vulnerable’ to over-complication by technologists, says Policy Exchange researcher

Public sector reforms are stalling because of a lack of technological expertise and a failure to encourage innovation, according to centre-right think tank Policy Exchange.

The government often takes a top-down approach that simply adds new technologies, rules or managers on top of an existing problem, Damian Hind, economic and social policy research fellow at the think tank, has said.

This, he said, creates “a random hotchpotch of initiatives” that aren’t innovative.

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A further issue the public sector faces is that it cannot compete with private sector salaries for the best talent.

This means government has to bring in consultants, but Hind argues in a blogpost on the think tank’s website that this leaves it “vulnerable to capture” by technologists who often build complex systems or processes into a project.

As an example, he cites the Universal Credit project that was established to streamline six existing benefits into one payment.

“It started with the assumption that streamlining benefits was the right solution for the whole system without testing it small scale,” Hind said.

“Success depended heavily on the introduction of new technologies that tried to imitate smart automation systems used in the private sector without fully understanding their replicability.”

In addition, the government has not been able to be flexible or adaptable because the timings and resources were determined upfront in a detailed business plan that was hard to change.

Hind said that the public sector should be given more freedom to innovate, and build experimentation into the mainstream policymaking process.

Local government is crucial for this innovation, he said, especially with the devolution agenda offering local authorities a good opportunity for such experimentation.

“They [local service reforms] are also less likely to be burdened with the same levels of expectation, media scrutiny and unionisation that can undermine radical public service reform at the national level”, Hind said.

A further recommendation is that the public sector focus on managing projects at a smaller scale, and Hind picks out the Government Digital Service as an example of how government has successfully used this approach.

Image credit: Mark Skinner, Flickr


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