The digital revolution is here and governments are running out of places to hide. Policy Exchange wants your help to understand the challenges and opportunities ahead
A couple of months ago it was time to renew my driving licence. This didn’t seem like a big deal. Our faces change (and I like to think I am looking a little wiser these days) so a mandatory decennial renewal didn’t seem that unreasonable. In any case, I thought, it’s the 21st century. Head online and we’ll be done in no time.
The reality, of course, was rather different. It turns out the old world wasn’t giving up without a fight, and nowhere more so than with my new photo: in the end I opened the digital image on my computer, printed it precisely to size, cut it out and fixed it to a paper form, ready for someone to digitise at the other end. After filling the rest of the paperwork out by hand I didn’t bat an eyelid when asked to enclose payment in the form of a cheque and then pop the whole lot in the mail.
This sort of dissonance between internet-fuelled citizen expectations and the day-to-day reality of government business is a big deal. Digitising transactions is just one part of the UK government’s ongoing programme to modernise the public sector (and to be fair, the driving license process is much less painful if you’ve recently had a new passport issued). New strategies for public services, government ICT and Civil Service reform are all in line with a new philosophy of digital-by-default. Encouragingly much of this comes with an “open” prefix – open data, open policymaking and of course open government are all good things.
But regular readers of this blog will know that the concept of openness goes far beyond the data, transparency and digitisation initiatives that are often the focus of government activity. The internet in particular gives us a huge opportunity to make a breakthrough on both wide and deep participation and collaboration, and to rethink the boundary between the state, the citizen and the private and third sectors. There is much for governments to learn and digest, not least from the open cultures and governance pioneered by the internet generation. Mike Bracken, executive director of the UK Government Digital Service, sums it up nicely when he says “we are not just on the web, but of the web.”
Looking ahead at the UK government’s digital journey we talk about a series of sprints from here to 2015, but the race won’t end there. Public sector productivity has been pretty much flat for the past decade. Stop for a moment, think how much the world has changed in that time, and read that again. Ten years ago Facebook didn’t exist and the music retailer HMV was going strong on the British high street. Since then entire industries have been turned on their heads by technology. People today expect mountains of data, personalised services and instant fulfilment. We expect companies and governments to listen and are not afraid to leverage the internet to make our voices heard. Software is eating the world. Previous Policy Exchange research has highlighted the huge potential of trends like big data and digital entrepreneurship. Government cannot escape radical disruption for very much longer.
In light of all this, we are embarking on a major new project to explore the future of open government in the face of transformational advances in technology, data and the internet. And in the spirit of open policymaking we need your help – visit our call for evidence and tell us where and how government can do better. Now, more than ever, a radical ambition to improve the public sector is something that none of us can afford to overlook.