SOAPBOX: Digital Government – Not Just For Geeks and Gurus…

Stevan Barry, Brian Cleland and Jonny McCullagh are organising the GovCampConnect unconference in September.

GovCampConnect bannerIn 2010 the UK government set up a dedicated digital services team aptly called the “Government Digital Service” (GDS). Its first job was to get a grip on hundreds of government websites which suffered from inconsistent standards and expensive maintenance costs. Mike Bracken – head of GDS at that time – and his team worked hard to reclaim the domain and to kick start thinking in government about how to work better in the digital age while maintaining a ruthless focus on user needs. Since then GDS, and the UK government as a whole, have become internationally recognised as a global leader in public sector digital transformation.

In Northern Ireland the “Digital Transformation Service”, headed up by Trevor Steenson has been tasked with bringing the devolved administration into the 21st century. A positive example of this is the Open Data NI portal which now publishes 160 datasets from various government departments for public re-use, including health, transport, finance and economic datasets.

In the Republic of Ireland, the National Digital Strategy sets out a vision for how the government will provide more digital services while at the same time providing the resources to get more citizens online. By joining the Open Government Partnership, the Irish government has driven greater use of open data and the internet to enable more responsive, accountable democracy.

A key part of the success of the UK government in this area has been the presence of an active and energised community of digital advocates. In Britain, this community has been successfully organising grassroots events for many years, including meetups and unconferences such as UKGovCamp.

Now for the first time on the island of Ireland, GovCampConnect – a community-generated unconference on digital government – will be taking place on the 24th September in Narrow Water Castle, on the edge of Carlingford Lough.

This free event is for anyone interested in digital transformation, not to just attend but to actively participate in discussions on how government and society can do digital better. The organisers chose a scenic venue halfway between Belfast and Dublin because great things are happening in both places and we want people to share their stories.

So if you’re interested in how government can be transformed by technology or you’d like to discuss things like open data, citizen engagement, public sector use of social media, smart cities, or government as a platform, you can find out more information and register on the website.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.

  • terence patrick hewett

    As an engineer I stay away from government because – I don’t like ’em. But this is what a colleague says:

    “Design by committee” – The main problem with all Government IT projects as I understand it.

    Working as a Business Analyst/Solution Architect on one small project for the government about 8 years ago was enough to give me grey hairs and an insight into how the Civil Service hive mind works.

    1) At the tender stage, the Government put out very vague project brief and look for the lowest total cost bid (under the value for money banner). Since winning a government IT project is considered a badge of merit to most IT companies, they’ll purposefully underbid knowing that the government will stump up additional costs anyway. Due to this, projects start out looking cheap and are approved by government on that basis.

    2) Most government project tenders are done in blocks, meaning potentially different suppliers for different components/phases of the overall project objective. Breaking it up like this means different government committees for each component/phase – each with their own agendas/concepts of what that part should do. Of course, they don’t always talk to each other. Worse still, suppliers winning the bids are often competitive rivals.

    3) Most big IT projects take a long time to come to fruition and Central Government have the problem of insisting on full detailed requirements up front, stating all the requirements by themselves with little input from the main users, reviewing the requirements and solutions to death and then micromanaging the project from the “Executive” level. By the time this has been agreed on and approved, technology has moved on and has become more expensive – due to 3rd party suppliers knowing the direction the government/primary supplier is going with that particular technology and take advantage of the project to raise their prices before the orders come flooding in.

    4) By the time the project has entered the build stage, the governmental revolving door has creaked into life at least once with new leadership and new agendas. This means change to the original requirements, so build is stopped and the requirements & solution redesign phase commences. By this time the lead Project/Programme Manager has had enough and b*ggers off so we have new project management coming on board who knows squat about what happened in the project. More delays as this manager is brought up to speed and performs his own style of project status review.

    5) Rework delays delivery and pushes up the project cost, rework means more cash for suppliers and more micromanaging from the government/civil service “masters” who fail to grasp why the change caused the costs to rise so they start more micromanaging to try and cut corners and drive the costs down. During this phase, the revolving door can creak into life more than once with project team members having had enough or government/civil servants being shuffled around and we could be back at 4) again.

    6) This then leads to poor build quality (full of bugs) and the buggy version is then released to an unfamiliar user group who then whine and bitch about it. In the meantime as each bug is identified, the project teams goes back to the drawing board and tries to fix the problems (more costs) and the minister currently in charge of the project gets the face full of s**t over it when it all goes wrong even if the problems were caused by his predecessor.

    That’s *if* the project hasn’t been canned mid-way through.

    I can’t see the process changing even with new government unless they completely offload all IT project governance to an external management company who will
    then manage the entire project without any interference from central government
    or civil service.

    The only winners are the companies who win the bids (and successfully include a compensation clause in case the government cancels the project for any reason). The government (and taxpayer) are always the losers.

  • hgreen

    Digital transformation of government services requires a pretty fundamental first step, a national citizen digital ID to replace national insurance records, drivers licenses, passports, medical cards/records etc. Until this is in place it will be impossible to maximise ROI from all of the other digital transformation initiatives.

  • terence patrick hewett

    It’s been tried in many countries and every time it has been a disaster.

  • Zorin001

    I’ve seen Government procurement up close, for something that was supposed to reduce the burden on the taxpayer its done nothing of the sort based on its obsession with lowest cost tenders.

    Buy cheap, buy twice has a lot of truth to it.

  • hgreen

    So what? Technology evolves and initial hurdles are overcome. It will happen, it’s inevitable.

    Has Estonia been a disaster?

  • terence patrick hewett

    The whole concept from the point of a liberal democracy is laughable. Apartheid South Africa tried it with the “Book of Life” and they abandoned it as unworkable as wos Apartheid itself. You are following in the footsteps of D F Malan and H F Verwoerd: it is only contemplated by the top down Stalinist fantasists. The only attraction: and I must admit it is a great temption: is what fun we would all have by screwing the whole thing up in a hundred and more ways.

  • hgreen

    Why is the whole concept laughable? This is an information management issue not a civil rights one. Govt and less scrupulous private orgs already hold loads of information on us already. That information you provide to obtain a passport or drivers license, where does it go? Onto a computer database? What’s the difference. I’d argue that giving citizens more control and ownership of their digital information is the direction we need to be heading.

    A South African example prior to the digital Information age is hardly a valid to use as an argument against.

  • terence patrick hewett

    SA wos well into the information age circa 1980 when the book wos tried on.

    You may wish to be reminded that in the grand abstract terms of the Enlightenment, the legitimacy of government derives from the consent of the governed; the tradition of liberal democracy hammered out in the United Kingdom, with much pain after 1688 and the United States after 1776; the culmination of two centuries of political struggle for the rights and liberties of ordinary citizens and of governance “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

    If I went down to my local butcher and suggested that he needed a piece of paper to tell him what he was, not only would I lose the extra he gives me for being an outrageous auld s*d, he would proceed to punch my lights out.

    If any government were so insane in these two islands to try it on then hell would be a very fine refuge.

    ID cards are for foreigners!!!

    Crux sancta sit mihi lux
    Non draco sit mihi dux
    Vade retro satana!!!

  • hgreen

    All very interesting, however completely irrelevant in this Internet age.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Not irrelevant as the remainers found to their cost. Democracy never goes out of fashion.

  • hgreen

    You seem to see information management and governance as an attack on democracy.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Humanity is a wondrous thing: they will use any device be it ever so humble as a means of destruction. A pair of sissors or as Agatha Christie did: a frozen leg of lamb. The dreaded intertubes is used for both good and evil.

    Leonard Shapiro wrote that:

    “the true object of propaganda is neither to convince nor even to persuade, but to produce a uniform pattern of public utterance in which the first trace of unorthodox thought reveals itself as a jarring dissonance.”

  • terence patrick hewett

    Much of the content of certain national newspapers is of course digitally generated: untouched by human hand. Lying to pollsters is a national sport: machines are not really very intelligent.

    Should that be “pollers”? surely a pollster is a female poller.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Courage mon brave! I once coined the term Technological Hypnotism in an interview for Creative Review to describe this quasi-religious belief that “the Computer will always get through”……as you say “Democracy never goes out of fashion.”

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The tender is always a figure to get the pitch accepted. The cost is always quite another thing………….

  • terence patrick hewett

    Oh! Seaan: the bomber always gets through: the store-keeper at my apprentice school, Dan Morgan was ex observer RFC: and he said:

    “we used to go up with a beer crate full of mortar bombs and drop them on the trenches”

    I found this funny then and I still do: it’s the beer crate!

  • Katyusha

    First thing it’s postcodes and next thing digital government and national ID codes. We should have listened to the old women who said postcodes were just the first step on the quick march to fascism.

    It’s worth realising the Republic’s Government spent €54 million on electronic voting machines to replace “stupid old pencils” only to find that people actually preferred voting with a pencil and ballot paper, and the authenticity and drama of the public count.
    IT is not the solution for everything. No point ramming it into a system that more-or-less works.

  • hgreen

    That’s cause it’s mostly old folks that vote. The idea that we have to wait many hours, or in the case of Ireland, north and south, days for an election result will be laughed at in the future.