Digital is making government redundant

Government, like all organizations, claims to exist to serve citizens but in reality is usually more interested in serving itself. Digital is increasingly exposing government incompetence and how remote from the real life of people so many in government are (particularly at a senior level).

“We see government programs that are not designed to help those who have to navigate them, programs where the focus is more on what civil servants are doing than on what citizens are getting, where delivery times are long, where data is incomplete, and where public reporting does not provide a clear picture of what departments have done.” So said Michael Ferguson, the Canadian Auditor General in November 2016.

In the same month, Paul Shetler resigned as Australia’s government head of digital transformation. He has talked about how it became impossible for him to witness a string of “cataclysmic” IT failures, about how this is “not a crisis of IT” but a “crisis of government”.

It’s true. We are seeing a global collapse in trust in government. What is it good for? Does it actually serve ordinary people or just special interests? Is government capable of dealing with digital transformation? Government just assumes it can continue being the same old government. That’s a dangerous, lazy assumption.

There are, of course, a great many government workers who do excellent work, but they often do this great work in conflict with the very institutions they work for. As you go up the bureaucratic management tree the eyes look ever upwards, seeking to please the politicians and massage egos.

“You’ve got an entire bureaucracy of IT bureaucrats who are backed by large vendors,” Shetler stated. These two groups are locked in a love-hate affair. Most of the people involved in this sordid affair have never once seen an actual citizen use the IT Titanic monstrosities that they allow to sail out with unrelenting regularity. The idea of creating something that’s simple to use is utterly alien to these people. Citizens are supposed to use what they’re given and be grateful. There’s no such thing as a software bug, just stupid people who need more training. When problems occur, government just denies they exist. Only when things explode in an absolute mess are they forced to grudgingly look around and find someone else to blame.

I have been in government buildings all over the world. One thing I have noticed again and again is that when there are pictures of people hanging on the walls of these fine buildings, they are never pictures of ordinary citizens. Instead, they are pictures of politicians and senior bureaucrats.

“Policy is not just something you dream up on a piece of paper,” Shetler states. “It’s actually also the results that you see on the streets.” And that’s the very problem with government. It measures itself based on the creation of the policy and its ‘communication’ to the press. And the further up in government you go, the more relentless that navel-gazing focus becomes.

Government must become useful again, and to do that it must measure the outcome of the policy. It must measure the use of what it creates and rapidly learn and evolve based on use. What is digital transformation? What is being transformed? Digital is just the enabler of transformation. It is the government, the senior bureaucrats and the politicians who must be transformed.

Canadian auditor general report review

Paul Shetler interview, The Guardian