Behind this remarkably anodyne headline is some compelling reading. This interview tracks Tom’s working life over more than twenty years, but in doing so is hugely illuminating about the intellectual, moral, and political history of digital public services, up to and beyond the creation of the Government Digital Service. As ever, understanding how we got here is indispensable to a good understanding of where we are.
The interview very clearly brings out why it was important for GDS to be set up in the way that it was, needing to avoid the existential risk of getting trapped by the inertia of large organisations.
The idea was to build a bubble in which the main strategy was delivery: let’s deliver great stuff so quickly that bureaucracy can’t catch us.
It also shows how important it has been (and continues to be) to put creative effort into making things which had been obscure more visible, in ways which shift the balance of power away from institutions and towards individuals. That recognition may though have obscured the extent to which that can only be a part of what people need from government. – which is perhaps one reason why the original emphasis of GDS was so much on better information provision, with the recognition of the importance of government as service provider only coming later.
Then we realised that the real heart of public services isn’t just providing information, it’s transactional service […] It’s great to have a website that tells you what to do, but doing the thing, that’s the actual service. And that’s a much harder problem to solve.
Perhaps the most powerful point – and one still not sufficiently recognised – is the recognition that modern, effective and efficient government is not the same as uniform, self-service and largely invisible government.
In government the risk of ‘designing for people like us’ is much greater than for most businesses. Many of us are in a position from where we see anything government-related as a hassle. We want it to disappear or reduce the friction of government interaction to zero. I think that’s a dangerous over-simplification, because the people who really need government the most don’t want the government to disappear. Quite the opposite. For those who are really struggling – and it could be any one of us at some point in our lives – the government is a safety net, and that safety net cannot be invisible nor completely frictionless. We need to facilitate a proper relationship between someone with a difficult problem and a public servant.
Of course the reason why teams such as GDS and its comparators in governments around the world need to be set up to subvert the stodgy institutions of government is precisely that they are stodgy. No doubt influenced by the audience of the magazine in which the interview first appealed, the heroes of the battle against the stodge turn out to be tech people
We need people to go in there and ruffle some feathers, show good leadership, and inject a new culture. If the machine rejects you, fine, try another way in or do something else. As someone working in tech you’re not going to struggle to find a new job, really.
There is a very real danger of hubris in that attitude, not so much from Tom himself, but from many who have followed him into (and often back out of) government. The policy traditions of government undoubtedly need to absorb the shock of digital, but that won’t be successful on a sustainable basis unless those who embody the digital perspective also make the effort to understand government, politics, and public services.
Do you think an improvement in service delivery is enough to regain the public’s confidence in government and politics in general?
That’s our only bloody hope!
Government service delivery needs to improve, for all the reasons Tom argues for. But that is far from being our only hope, and seeing it as such risks missing something important about government – what it is, as well as what it does.