Open by design

March 6, 2012

A very recent paper by Yu & Robison entitled The New Ambiguity of “Open Government” highlights one of the ongoing difficulties of the whole e-government and ‘open government’ debate, and so, for me, it’s not a new ambiguity but something inherent in the whole scheme of things. I’d already mentioned one of their papers in the ‘Invisible Hand’ in 2008, so the authors weren’t new to me either. Essentially, the paper proposes that there is an issue of semantics around the term ‘open government’ or ‘open data’, in that it can be open in at least two different senses – political or technical openness provides access to data, whilst philosophical openness provides transparent government, and it is possible to have the former without the latter. Robinson & Yu argue for clarity between the two in any usage. They try to remove the ambiguity around technical openness by labelling one ‘adaptable’, as Tony Roberts, as I related recently in Open Warfare,  uses the expression ‘ actionable’.

In contrast Fishenden & Thompson, also co-authors in 2010 of “Better for less: How to make Government deliver IT savings“, have written a paper entitled “Digital Government, Open Architecture and Innovation: Why Public Sector IT Will Never be the Same Again“, which largely ignores the semantic trap and instead creates another term ‘open architecture’. Building further on the Digital Era Governance (DEG) concept proposed by Dunleavy & Margetts, they recognise the failings of the New Public Management (NPM) dogma and the fact that it is still ingrained in government, whilst claiming that ‘open architecture’ will bring us nearer to DEG. I suggested in Accountability in 2010 that NPM was far from dead when the current public service leadership had all grown up with it, and were thoroughly tainted with its concepts, and as institutional isomorphism teaches us, it’s pervasive. In terms of ‘open architecture’ , we already have TOGAF, and that’s been there a while now, too. What we need is both philosophical/political openness so that the citizen can see why nothing is changing, along with the technical openness so that data, systems and architectures can ‘plug and play’.


A facelift for the pig

September 12, 2010

E-government will now be accepted by many as having provided “lipstick on the pig” (a favourite expression of mine indicating that whist you can apply lipstick to the pig, it still remained a pig), in other words sticking a web front-end on many government services has still left the applications and processes limping along in a back-office somewhere, without process or regulatory improvement.

However, the new 69 page report from the so-called Network for the Post-Bureaucratic* Age (nPBA) entitled “Better for Less – How to make Government IT deliver savings” is much more of an encouragement for a face-lift for the pig, and a cheap one at that! I’d mentioned another paper from Liam Maxwell in July 2009,where I  supported some of the proposals and  suggested that it might indicate a future government’s policy and similarly this document, in my opinion, is just as good again (in parts).

The paper has many good points, but despite Mr Maxwell’s exposure to local government ICT, this strategy still falls down where e-government did 13 years ago. A pig is still a pig, despite lipstick or facelift and the nominal attack on bureaucracy is not necessarily a good idea, as McSweeney explains in the paper* on the post-bureaucratic age. It’s the wasteful parts of service processes that need sorting out, and they are frequently as a result of legislation or central government demands.

As described by Paul Henman in his analysis of “New Conditionality”, ICT has facilitated complex and frequent changes to legislation and regulation, these in turn add to the complexity of the ICT solutions and the cycle continues ad infinitum developing the complexity of government ICT. This is where the change needs to occur – simpler regulation and legislation.

Rather than auditing ICT, what we need in reality is a proposal, by some authors with an understanding of what makes good services delivered by central and local government, of how we audit end-to-end government services and in the process identify areas of true regulated bureaucracy that can be removed. Further, any attempts at rationalization should account for multi-channel service delivery. Many of the applications in the “new conditional” world link together and off onto web sites or corporate applications, this could provide some of the open data desirable for the commonweal, which whilst not of general interest will still have value to the local community.

Further, in a couple of instances, Mr Maxwell examines and compares the costs of ICT in local and central government, which can be a very misleading practice. Even with the amount of regulation, financial accounting in government is a dark art with the use of on-costs and recharges varying from authority to authority to the extent that costing for IT services is not straightforward and one can easily be comparing apples and oranges. Perhaps, another area to standardize?

*If anyone wants to know what “post-bureacracy” is,  there’s  an excellent critique of the Cameronesque “post-bureaucratic age” concept in a recent revision of an earlier academic paper by Brendan McSweeney entitled “Is a post-bureaucratic age possible?” As a summary, Mc Sweeney states “as a reaction against the authoritarianism of the previous UK government’s (New Labour’s) neo-conservatism, David Camerson’s sentiment is a welcome one, but as a programme for comprehensive transformation it is not achievable.” Which I’d say applies to the nPBA’s report also.

Blogging about other bloggers’ blogs!

October 7, 2009
Having not mentioned Andrea di Maio too recently (4th October), I’d like to pick up on a recent post of his where he compares the chances of Government 2.0 succeeding in the light of the unchanged issues that pervaded Government 1.0. Amongst these issues he lists “Cultural barriers, turf battles, risk avoidance, a procedural rather than a policy-based approach to accountability.”
In considering the employment of the maturity models and rankings so favoured internationally by consultancies, he states that “In the past those rankings hardly cared about how many people were actually using those online services, let alone what value were getting from them”!
This topic naturally lead onto a posting by Public Strategist entitled “e-Government ten years on”, that in its turn reported on a post or two by Jerry Fishenden. This is all good stuff in the fact that at least some people out there are willing to learn from history. Public Strategist admits their predictions were badly wrong, but my view is not a criticism of the predictions but of the actual failure to measure the progress, success or failure, that wasted millions, if not billions, of the money, we are now so desperately short of!
There are many good points in what Jerry Fishenden raises but a couple of the bullet points from both pieces (8 September and 1 October) are worth repeating:
  • “Most day-to-day interactions with citizens happen at the local level. So look at models of online interaction that recognise this reality and that local government and third-parties may provide the entry point for the re-definition of the delivery of public services
  • Taking existing inefficient services and putting them online won’t deliver the benefits being sought. Public services need to be re-engineered around what ICT now makes possible
  • Re-designing services needs to put the citizen/business at the centre, not the producer (or the producer’s idea of what the citizen/business wants). Government needs to get away from inappropriate approaches such as department-based CRM, which project internal government silo’s and stovepipes and impose them on the citizen
  • The main blocker to modernising the UK and the effective use of innovation is the hierarchy and arrogance that exists within much of the public service, particularly Whitehall, which lives in a world that has long since passed and refuses to listen and learn
  • We should be using the scale of modern technology to get massive and continuing feedback from those the public sector is there to serve, providing a programme of continuous improvement under the tutelage of those who use the services the most”
    Jerry also links to the presentations on LSE’s web site – the one by Peter Gilroy is worth a look!
    The history lesson from Public Strategist was not new to me, having been haunted by it since the beginning, and having had to revisit the sequence of events that led up to the crime as part of the literature review for my PhD. It did, however, confirm the route that was taken and confirmed my suspicions of the foul deed.
    From the above three bloggers we seem to have a consensus, which I heartily support. Let us hear again the lessons learned in recent history and hopefully not make the same mistakes!


    August 7, 2009

    At last! Someone has bothered to plot public input and ICT budget growth against productivity. On Jerry Fishenden’s blog he has done just that.

    Similarly to others recently quoted e.g. Steve Jenner, this means scrapping some major waste-of-time-and-money projects and at the same time thinking about where best to inject funding.

    How about into some systems thinking?