Why digital government must come from the centre

By Andrew Greenway

Without the incentives and levers that only a central department can have, digital transformation in government won't go very far.

Image: Number 10CC BY 2.0

Without strong central departments, governments will always struggle to meet their user’s needs.

An argument has recently bubbled up in the UK over ownership of the government’s digital transformation agenda.

Responsibility for data policy — a major plank of Internet-era public services in any version of the future — was recently moved from a central team in Cabinet Office to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

This move, and other straws in the wind, has led many to believe that the impetus coming from the centre on digital is in decline.

This is going against the grain. Governments around the world are adopting a model of strong centres to drive forward institutional reform, from Argentina to Ontario, Mexico to Peru. Users are starting to see positive results.

But powerful central departments have few friends. They meddle in the affairs of other ministries. Worst of all, as far as their colleagues are concerned, they rarely seem to actually do anything, preferring instead to critique the work of others.

The question for those interested in making government better at what it does is: does central power really matter? Some argue that it makes no difference who owns the reforming agenda, so long as someone is gripping the issue. A strong minister, motivated team and collaborative colleagues matter more than whatever nameplate is on the department’s door.

They are not wrong that those things are equally important. However, if your goal is to create a more user-centred government, I would argue that without the incentives and levers only a central department can have, you won’t get very far.

Most organisations have a stable balance of power. That will ebb and flow over time, with the centre, departments, or regions gaining more of an upper hand, but there usually is an equilibrium to which things return. Those trying to change governments, and in particular trying to make them effective at meeting the needs of their citizens and businesses, must find ways of shifting that equilibrium.

Where centres are weak and power sits entirely within departments, reform is possible but uneven. This leads to two-speed bureaucracies; countries where it is easy to get a digital driving licence but littered with long paper forms when applying for disability benefits. From a bureaucrat’s perspective, this is not something to worry about, unless your ministry is the one falling behind.

For a politician, this is not good news. Voters tend to judge governments by the competence of its least competent part. Political administrations stand or fall together. A government where some services get better while others degrade is little better than one that’s making no progress at all.
A government where some services get better while others degrade is little better than one that’s making no progress at all.
In order to make government work better for citizens and business, politicians have a strong incentive to move the whole machine in a user-centred direction, at roughly the same pace.

In most democratic governments, power relationships tend to come in one of three flavours. There’s political loyalty, where power gathers around elected leaders. There’s ideological loyalty, where power gathers around a set of values or ideals. And there’s institutional loyalty, where power gathers around individual departments.

Every country has a version of all three happening at the same time, but generally tilts towards one or another. In presidential systems with younger institutions, such as those in South America, speed and momentum tends to gather around top political figures.

In Westminster-based systems like the UK and Canada, senior civil service leadership tends to move rapidly between departments, creating an official-level elite that excels in showing a set of values and behaviours, rather than deep expertise.

Meanwhile, in Japan, officials tend to join ministries and remain in the same organisation for their entire careers, making ministry loyalty the dominant force.

What is interesting about these three types of loyalty — political, ideological and institutional — is that the first two are relatively easy to tie back to focusing on user needs, via a combination of hard work and changing the rules. Marrying the motivations of a department with the needs of the user is much harder, however.

The shape of government departments is usually formed by a policy area — education, culture, industry, health — rather than a group of users. The Minister for Energy is accountable for energy policy. She may see herself as accountable for what energy bill payers think. But in reality, there’s no such group. There are simply people who do lots of things that are affected by government policy, including paying their energy bills.

Department-led reforms are often valuable. But without a strong centre and new institutional set-ups, their hard-won reforms often cannot be scaled. Without scale, users are ultimately left dissatisfied. And dissatisfied voters turf out governments.