Scotland must learn lessons from the emperor’s new clothes of Whitehall transformation

Written by Neil McEvoy on 26 July 2018 in Opinion

The digital scene in Westminster can be a self-congratulatory echo chamber, and the Scottish Government must block out the noise, believes Digital Scotland founder Neil McEvoy

Recently, two authors on Forbes - Jason Bloomberg and Joe McKindrick - asked the same question: has the promise of digital transformation delivered, or has it failed to live up to its own hype?

If we zoom in on the public sector to ask the question, the answer is: ‘most certainly not’.

There is a massive discrepancy between what is proposed is happening versus what is actually happening. Indeed, digital government in the UK is really quite broken.

Timely then that MPs have begun an investigation; they desperately need to, as fortunes of taxpayers monies are being flushed away simply to advance the careers of those personally profiting from the hype.

The Emperor’s New Clothes
There's no missing the hype. If you were to believe Twitter, every government agency is a hive of innovation, with crowds of people gathered around whiteboards and streams of Post It notes (yes, the irony) showing how they are hard at it, transforming digital stuff. 'Design thinking', AI, chatbots – you name it – are all being deployed and, via the best agile practices, everything is designed with the user in mind.

Inherently this type of online activity is a good thing, social media is ideal for knowledge sharing, collaboration et al. However, what you come to realise is that the ‘echo chamber effect – i.e. these tweets aren't for us mere public, this is an industry talking to itself – means that this is government IT people congratulating other government IT people. 

To use an analogy, crowds telling the emperor what a lovely set of new robes he is wearing.

What it should ultimately be for – a form of citizen enquiry interaction and action – does not happen. Any complaints to them about non-working services are ignored, and this leads us to the naked reality.

The Guardian reported on one of the most high-profile failures, the disastrous Universal Credit system, that is an utter IT debacle.

And you don't need a whistle-blower to reveal this secret, simply try using the service: I user tested a UC application and despite the theory of all these new online applications being developed with user-centric design thinking principles, you couldn't develop an online service more obnoxious and useless for actual human beings.

In my case, I was presented with only one identity verification process option, via Experian, which I had to use to complete the application, but when I tried to do so they failed to verify me (!) – and dumped me out to a dead end. The telephone number then offered to complete the application manually puts you through to what sounds like a 1980's answering machine that tells you all applications must be completed online and then hangs up. Seriously. I've never experienced a worse online experience.

Getting the Basics right
We can start to dig out the core myths that perpetuate this new GDS cult. 

Yes, I think GDS has done a wonderful job of setting a new scene, but the challenge is always that you have to deliver on your promises, and they are failing entirely at living up to their own hype.

The most notable of these is the classic ‘digital transformation isn't about technology’. You can actually Google it to see how often that idea is peddled.

It's correct to say that the biggest benefits of digital transformation will come from a larger overall organisational and business model transformation too, but to suggest, as has become a common mantra, that it isn't about technology is akin to saying football isn't about the ball. Yes, there is teamwork and even the role of the crowd but, if you can't kick a ball in the net, it all matters for nowt.

For digital transformation, technology is the ball. If you haven't mastered that part then you're just playing imaginary football, you're a naked emperor. 

If you don't have ‘deploy working IT for users as the number-one priority in your department’s digital manifesto. people need to start getting fired. You're being led up the garden path towards yet more debacle.

The common mantra that digital transformation isn't about technology is akin to saying that football isn't about the ball

A counter to this negative perspective are those who are doing it right, and I'd highlight examples such as HM Land Registry. Yes, they are 'reaching for the stars', with ambitions to build blockchain-enabled registries, but they also have their feet on the ground, defining this as being “brilliant at the basics2, such as digitising basic online workflows, and measuring how successfully they are completed.

These are the concrete foundations to build your aspirations of transformation upon; in short, until you can point to a successful implementation of these most basic online case management workflows, you're building on sand and have started measuring yourself up for a new invisible robe.

Digital Scotland
I write all this from a perspective of launching Digital Scotland, which has an ambition to bring these types of lessons learned from around the world to our own goals of becoming a world-leading digital nation.

Hence my biggest concern towards this is whether we are also among the crowd, cheering on the naked emperor. Are we going to emulate GDS, GOV.UK, Verify et al because they're 'industry cool', even though they are total implementation failures? Definition of insanity and all that…


About the author

Neil McEvoy is the founder of Digital Scotland, a community dedicated to helping Scotland become a world-leading digital nation. He will be writing a series of articles for PublicTechnology, the next of which will examine the details of the country’s digital plans so far. He tweets as @DigitalscotNews.  


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