2017 thinkers thompson digitalbrexit 883x432 1

Brexit: time to seize the digital day

14 August 2017

The article at a glance

For Brexit to succeed, it needs to be citizen-centred. Yet there’s a real danger, writes Dr Mark Thompson, University Senior Lecturer in …

For Brexit to succeed, it needs to be citizen-centred. Yet there’s a real danger, writes Dr Mark Thompson, University Senior Lecturer in Information Systems, that the opportunity to deliver this will be lost.

Team of construction workers working with DELETE button on a computer keyboard

Dr Mark Thompson
Dr Mark Thompson

Imagine if we had electricity but no National Grid. People would build their own little power stations in their back gardens, and – because each would be running their own special voltage – bespoke their own electrical items to suit it. Now imagine the National Grid has come into being. It no longer makes sense to build your own, ‘special’ kettle and TV to run on only your own voltage. We need to come together to decide what a standard, 230v TV looks like – and the market will respond flexibly and efficiently to that pooled demand.

But what if everyone thinks that their TV needs to be slightly different, and remain ‘special’ to meet their individual needs? This is precisely what’s happened across government bureaucracy: pointless, expensive replication. Now, government has a golden opportunity to work more efficiently as it reconfigures administrative processes around the burning platform of Brexit. Will our leaders grasp it – or not?

Thus far, the omens aren’t good: HS2 (a planned new high-speed railroad line) and the Ministry for Brexit demonstrate that government doesn’t hesitate to spawn the next generation of legacy government departments, rather than thinking about where the existing capabilities lie, and re-using these instead. Just like the effect of a national grid on our consumption of televisions, the impact of the shared infrastructure of the internet will reward governments able to consolidate demand around standard stuff – yet, as I wrote in a report for George Osborne back in 2010, government has spent the last 25 years presiding over a consolidation of supply. We have been buying slightly different salami-slice versions of the same back-end functions: making and receiving payments, case management, checking identity and so on. This backend stuff saps away possibly 30 to 40 per cent of our public sector budget – at a time when frontline services are being cut.

Standardising things, and consolidating demand for these across public services, can be done. In 2003, the Department of Health (DoH) wanted an e-recruitment system. It decided to hire a large supplier to build the technology. We asked, at the time: how are you going to persuade 650 individual and very powerful trusts to abandon their own special, siloed way of doing things and use your standardised recruitment service instead?

To their credit, the DoH agreed to reconsider. And we pointed them to Jobsite, an embryonic jobs board, where they could post their jobs. The technology was already there; government didn’t need to build a ‘special’ version. That site is now NHS Jobs, one of the most trafficked medical public sector sites in the Europe. It has saved more than £1.5bn since its incarnation. When the contract came up for renewal, government knew it had a very valuable platform. That meant companies competing for the contract had to offer to run the basic service at close to cost – and come up with interesting and innovative additional services on top of that. They had consolidated demand and, attracted by this, suppliers were now queuing up to innovate and invest in the basic service.

The internet is progressively exposing the amount of backend duplication, redundancy, and non-joined-up work that is going on. Take road tax payment: the first ever digitally constituted value chain in real time. Citizens applying to renew road tax can now watch online as DVLA joins up records from three databases – registrations, insurance and MOT – and the government then takes payment. But where is the social value in the DVLA having its own bespoke payment system? Why, looking at that exposed value chain, could the insurance company not collect that transaction and take a small slice off the fee you pay? (Thereby also eliminating vehicle insurance fraud, a rather good social outcome.)

The opportunities in what’s coming to be known as govtech are vast. The Government Digital Service (GDS) is acknowledged to be a global leader in digital government. Google, after all, works all over the world. So why not Google-ise those backend services whose duplication holds us back and stops us producing joined-up responses to shocks like Brexit? Most of the backend of what government does is little more than making and receiving payments, a bit of case management, checking identity, workflow, registration and many other very digitisable algorithmic activities.

By thinking horizontally rather than vertically and clustering some of the activities that departments have in common, it’s possible to produce a far more consistent, joined-up and arguably much more cost-effective response to Brexit. This could be the job of a very slimmed-down Ministry for Brexit, comprising only a policy layer and commercial and/or contractual capabilities. The Ministry would need to publish an open service architecture. What’s the service model? What are our capabilities? What do we need to make Brexit work? For example, can we do some of the monitoring and regulatory activities we’ll be repatriating from Europe in the same, rather than different, bespoke ways?

Government has always struggled with this duplication of services. Yet now, with the arrival of the internet – its National Grid, so to speak – it has the means to do something about it. The old model – that government does stuff for citizens – is finished. Its future is as a broker of new forms of more direct social economic exchange. Brexit only makes more shrill the call for the inevitable structural adjustment in the operational model of public services. This will surely come, just as it came to the likes of other victims of disruption, such as Blockbuster. They tried to resist it. Eventually, they went bust.