Will technology kill bureaucracy?

Earlier today the Liberal Democrats kicked off the process to revise the party’s policy on information technology and intellectual property with a consultation session at the party’s Liverpool conference. Technology is also a theme explored in the Litmus newspaper jointly produced by Lib Dem Voice, Left Foot Forward and ConservativeHome, with pieces from Tom Watson, Stephan Shakespeare and Richard Allan on this topic. We’ve reproduced Richard’s piece below and you can read the full newspaper either via the hard copies in conference registration packs or online at the Litmus Test website.

The Government has to embrace innovative technology to deliver better services. Existing public service contracts should be changed in light of experience and new technology, argues Lord Allan.

Smart use of technology has the potential to deliver significant savings to large organisations, including government, and allow them to offer better services. At the same time, poor technology projects can end up draining resources and may even worsen services when initially deployed.

If government is to deliver more of the smart, successful projects then it needs to place greater emphasis on flexibility and ongoing innovation.

Firstly, there needs to be the ability to move quickly to make changes within existing contracts to respond to innovations in technology and learning during the project. But because issues of contact variation leading to unexpected high costs have plagued the public sector, there has been pressure in the opposite direction with the aim of having everything pinned down in fine detail at the start of the contract.

This was the approach taken by the NHS IT Programme which aimed to push the risk onto the supplier for any failure to meet very detailed contract terms that were defined at the outset. The outcome of this was not better delivery of the actual programme but the failure of some of the contracts as they proved unworkable and unimprovable.

The second area where flexibility would help is more difficult. This is around changing the business specification and therefore brings us into the legislative domain. We can look back at the tax credits system where issues emerged around the implications of some of the policy decisions as the development of the system took place.

As a system is volume tested it can become apparent that a process that has been defined for the collection and processing of data by claimants takes far more time than anticipated and so will prove unworkable in practice. One solution to such a discovery is to pile more resources into the system to try and make it cope.

The other approach is to re-evaluate the requirements to see if they can be altered in the light of experience. This is done in the public sector but over a long timescale and often requires fresh legislation. The Child Support Agency is perhaps the classic example of such a situation as it was clearly unable to meet its objectives from a very early stage and needed legislation to mandate new processes.

So, where are the hopeful signs that all this may change? The proposals by the Conservatives in opposition to break up ICT contracts into smaller units are one way to try to achieve greater flexibility. This could lead to a more ‘modular’ approach to ICT services that allows elements to be swapped in and out more simply. If this really can be delivered then it would create greater scope for the flexibility and innovation but it does present challenges.

In particular senior management in departments and agencies will be presented with more options that they have to spend time on. It probably comes as a sense of relief to many senior officials that the “IT contract” for their department or agency is something that they only have to consider once every three or four years when a mega contract is signed. They can then largely put it out of their minds unless and until something goes wrong.

An approach that aims to redefine the IT strategy frequently to meet changing needs and take advantage of new developments will require a much greater degree of engagement. The other positive sign is the release of more public sector information.

Many of the uses of this will be small pilots that never go beyond a beta stage as they are developed by individuals or groups with limited resources. But these pilots have the potential to create a high degree of pressure for innovation. Rather than ‘name and shame’ this is a case of ‘improve and move’. The classic case study for this is the website theyworkforyou.com.

By improving the presentation of Hansard over what was then offered by the official Parliamentary website it not only offered a good service in its own right but stimulated Parliament to make many significant improvements to its own offer. The results of that process are clear now on Parliament’s site.

If innovative experimentation really takes off — and the conditions are right for it to do so — then we can expect to see numerous examples of developments which will nudge the official bureaucracies to improve their offer.

Lord Allan is a Liberal Democrat peer and former MP for Sheffield Hallam; he read archaeology and anthropology at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and was a field archaeologist in Britain, France and the Netherlands.

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