Monday, April 27, 2015

Political and Management Dogma in IT

When I helped write the Better For Less paper (with Liam Maxwell, Mark Thompson, Jerry Fishenden and others) there was no political dogma associated with the paper just a desire to overcome past management dogma (the outsourcing of everything, the loss of engineering capability within Government and the waste associated with IT).

For those who don't know me, I'm Old Labour. My economic viewpoint is that of the middle ground of Keynes, Hayek and Adam Smith rather than the extremes such as Friedman or Marx. I view the market as a necessary tool for competition supported by a strong Government. The market fails frequently, inertia can be rampant in organisation and Governments are essential for future competition. I take the pragmatic road of Deng Xiaoping - "It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice". Competition is key from a national stance.

It's for these reason that much of the paper was about reducing waste, investment in capabilities, growing the intelligent customer, understanding the landscape we exist within and exploiting this to our favour. It's why I teach people within Government how to map, how to use multiple methods and how to strengthen our position.

It's also why I'm strongly in support of the concept of Government as a Platform, not just GDS providing services to others but also Departments providing utility services to other Departments. I see no reason why if DWP (Dept of Work and Pensions) is good at fraud detection that such capabilities cannot be provided to other Departments. I also see no reason why such services can't be provided through G-Cloud and even to the wider public.

The goal of all of this is not just improving Government efficiency but enhancing the commercial market. As Sally Howes, the NAO's executive leader, once said “the government, Parliament and my own organisation, the NAO, were very aware of how the old fashioned world of long, complex IT projects limited value for money”. The market can be extremely ineffective, I see this in the commercial world all the time - endless duplication, bias, inefficiencies, poor strategic play and oodles of inertia. If you're looking for the largest centrally planned bureaucracies with endless structures of command and control then often the best place to find them is within large technology vendors. 

There are exceptions and it's those exceptions - the use of cell based structures, transparency, a focus on user needs, improving situational awareness, creation and exploitation of ecosystems, provision of open source and open data - that Government is learning from and often leading. Don't for one second think that the market is the bastion of forward thinking - it's not. Most companies aren't like this. Many industries strive to protect existing positions without adapting. In many cases it's Government that forces the market to adapt or creates new breakthroughs in technology and practices that markets then apply.

Effective competition on a national level seems to require that balance of market with Government. The question is always how much but that's a debate on finer details between the schools of Hayek, Smith and Keynes. This is the social capitalist model behind China's meteoric rise, despite the assertions that "they' just copying", "cheap labour" and all the other gross simplifications and downright falsehoods.

However, I have noticed a disturbing sign in UK Politics. It started with this whole BDO paper which espoused a return to the more purely "market" approaches that had failed UK Government so badly in the past. As someone who specialises in competition then the idea that UK Government should abandon its digital transformation and hand it back to the market has to be one of the most misguided arguments that I've read in a long time. 

Reading around the subject, I did discover there are often worries that UK Gov is just copying the latest memes.  Don't get me wrong, endless meme copying is rife within the commercial world. The vast majority of companies have little to no situational awareness and most strategy is based upon copying others. When UK Government announced its need for Chief Digital Officers (and there are reasons for this) then before you knew it the private sector was falling over itself to appoint Chief Digital Officers for reasons that no-one was quite sure of other than everyone else was getting one.

Even a cursory examination of the changes so far in Government would show efficiencies and improvements in both GDS and the Departments. The level of strategic play that I've seen in some Departments has outstripped much of the private world. Government is not following but leading in many cases. Of course, there will always be problem projects but even for those we do not yet know the cause of the failure. 

There is no clear reason to abandon the current course except for one - political dogma - a belief that somehow the private sector knows best, that small (rather than efficient) Government is good. It's certainly an idea that is counter to the practice over the last five years - greater investment in staff, use of transparency, more visible accountability, intense focus on user needs, use of SMEs, use of open source, use of open data greater and challenges to spending. 

Yes, Government has moved away from its dependency on the private market and so far, it has shown significant benefits (except to those vendors and their lobbyists).  I can find little evidence to support this idea of doing a u-turn and returning more fully to the private market (with the command and control bureaucracies of large technology vendors) and instead lots of evidence that we should keep on with our current course.
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