Many of the debates in contemporary British politics are over the proper size of the state. But one question that gets lost in this ideological row is the impact organisational reform can have on how well the government delivers services.
In a recent report for the Institute for Government, Dr Mark Thompson and Dr Jerry Fishenden argue that the British state needs a rethink about how it goes about its work which is as fundamental as the post-war Beveridge reforms. The question the pair have posed is nothing if not ambitious: “How would one plan a modern, internet-enabled state if one had a clear field without being hampered by vested interests of any kind?”
Implicit in the question is that, for all the Whitehall IT initiatives of the last few decades, we remain far from a properly functioning 21st century model of government.
And the imperative to change is obvious. An ageing population with increasingly expensive care needs, combined with an ever-shrinking tax base to support them, means politicians of all stripes will have to take a long hard look at what the state does and how it does it.
It’s not that the government is not using technology, they point out. Departments have glossy websites and the main Gov.uk site pumps out reams of information every day. But shiny websites hide a set of outdated and often convoluted systems. As anyone who has had to deal with the Sisyphean nightmare of HMRC self-assessment forms could tell you, technology is not a byword for efficiency.
Or, as the authors succinctly put it, the way many government services use tech at the moment amounts to “strapping hi-tech computers onto a rotting corpse”. What’s needed, Thompson and Fishenden contend, is not just technical wizardry, but organisational reform.
As they write: “A Victorian civil servant awakening from a lengthy slumber would find the way our public sector still works comfortably familiar: largely centralised, hierarchical, and organisation-centric.”
That has real costs for consumers and taxpayers, they argue – with huge amounts of cash and effort wasted in back office functions rather than reaching citizens.
It’s also completely at odds with the way the most forward-thinking and successful global companies have organised themselves, away from the dreaded “silos” into a platform-based model.
What do these organisations, the all-conquering Amazons and eBays, look like?
“They are horizontally, not vertically, organised. They’re ‘of the net, not on the net’: they didn’t try and bolt on shiny technology to old, incumbent and broken business models. They’ve been designed from the ground up as internet-enabled, highly efficient organisations.”
The opportunities for restructuring government along similar lines are manifold. It’s not about chopping away at existing structures by reducing departmental spending on printer paper or freezing civil servants’ wages, though.
As Thompson and Fishenden point out, government departments and Britain’s 353 councils are currently duplicating processes and functions all over the shop. Rather than each area of public services operating separate systems, they propose a “Lego Government” where public sector staff “assemble and consume standard building blocks of administrative capabilities” from a pool of digital resources.
For instance, councils could draw functions such as case management, licensing and payments technology from a shared “digital commons”. This would also allow citizens to contribute to the way their services are run, as well as making the processes of government much more transparent.
This would also have profound implications for the public sector’s managerial class, with swathes of administrative work taken care of by a centralised pool of applications that public sector staff can tap into.
Examples of how such a model might work in government already exist. The NHS Jobs site, for instance, is a central platform that deals with an application every two seconds, saving the taxpayer money as well as making the whole recruitment process simpler for employer and would-be staffer alike.
We can also look at how the BBC reconfigured iPlayer in 2013, moving from a “monolithic application” to a new architecture based on Amazon Web Services cloud computing.
In the Netherlands , there is a shining example of how to use platforms to enhance public services. The Buurtzorg community nursing system employs just 30 back office staff to support a team of 7,000 nurses. Not only has it significantly improved patient outcomes, but the staff themselves have more autonomy and are by all accounts very happy.
The raw numbers are compelling – an audit of the Buurtzorg model could save the Dutch state £2bn if rolled out across the country. Thompson and Fishenden calculate a similar system could save the UK some £6bn – and that’s just from spending on community nursing.
Overall, the authors reckon a platform-based government could “eventually” save the British state some £46bn a year. While we should certainly treat such figures with a healthy degree of scepticism – and comparisons to Beveridge may seem far-fetched – the prize in terms of more efficient and accountable services is clear.
So what chance do we have of rolling out this kind of organisational change across the British state? The authors are clear that this will be a long slog, but the long-term implications are altogether more exciting than any number of zippy website redesigns.
Certainly it’s not a great time politically to try and make the case for a radical overhaul of the state. The government machinery is understandably consumed by Brexit, while Labour’s leadership seem to sincerely believe all our problems can be solved with a judicious round of nationalisations or hiking taxes on the well-off. But a more efficient government would surely help combat the sense of powerlessness that voters feel when they run into big government or big business and that is driving much of the discontent with the status quo.
The irony is that a digital commons should be an easy sell for politicians of all stripes. After all, which minister would not want to crow about replacing those pesky bureaucrats with more nurses, teachers and police officers, and saving money along the way.
Either way the message could not be clearer – if we want to create a truly modern Lego Government, we better start building quickly.