The Wicked Problems of Government

The dichotomy of our age is surely that as our machines become more and more intelligent the problems that we need them to solve are becoming ever more difficult and intractable. They are indeed truly wicked problems, no more so than in our offices of power where the addition of political and social ‘agendas’ would seem to make some of the problems we face even more difficult to address.

Poll Tax
A Demonstration Against the Infamous ‘Poll Tax’

In their book The Blunders of Our Governments the authors Anthony King and Ivor Crewe recall some of the most costly mistakes made by British governments over the last three decades. These include policy blunders such as the so called poll tax introduced by the Thatcher government in 1990 which led to rioting on the streets of many UK cities (above). Like the poll tax many, in fact most, of the blunders recounted are not IT related however the authors do devote a whole chapter (chapter 13 rather appropriately) to the more egregious examples of successive governments IT blunders. These include:

  • The Crown Prosecution Service, 1989 – A computerised system for tracking prosecutions. Meant to be up and running by 1993-94, abandoned in 1997 following a critical report from the National Audit Office (NAO).
  • The Department of Social Security, 1994 – A system to issue pensions and child benefits using swipe cards rather than the traditional books which were subject to fraud and also inefficient. The government cancelled the project in 1999 after repeated delays and disputes between the various stakeholders and following another critical report by the NAO.
  • The Home Office (Immigration and Nationality Directorate), 1996 – An integrated casework system to deal with asylum, refugee and citizenship applications. The system was meant to be live by October of 1998 but was cancelled in 1999 at a cost to the UK taxpayer of at least £77 million. The backlog of cases for asylum and citizenship which the system had meant to address had got worse not better.

Whilst the authors don’t offer any cast iron solutions to how to solve these problems they do highlight a number of factors these blunders had in common. Many of these were highlighted in a joint Royal Academy of Engineering and British Computer Society report published 10 years ago this month called The Challenges of Complex IT Projects.The major reasons found for why complex IT projects fail included:

  • Lack of agreed measures of success.
  • Lack of clear senior management ownership.
  • Lack of effective stakeholder management.
  • Lack of project/risk management skills.
  • Evaluation of proposals driven by price rather than business benefits.
  • Projects not broken into manageable steps.

In an attempt to address at least some of the issues around the procurement and operation of government IT systems (which is not restricted to the UK of course), in particular those citizen facing services over the internet, the coalition government that came to power in May 2010 commissioned a strategic review of its online delivery of public services by the UK Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox. Her report published in November 2010 recommended:

  • Provision of a common look and feel for all government departments’ transactional online services to citizens and business.
  • The opening up of government services and content, using application programme interfaces (APIs), to third parties.
  • Putting a new central team in Cabinet Office that is in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels and that commissions all government online information from other departments.
  • Appointing a new CEO for digital in the Cabinet Office with absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services and the power to direct all government online spending.

Another government report, published in July of 2011, by the Public Administration Select Committee entitled Government and IT – “a recipe for rip-offs” – time for a new approach proposed 33 recommendations on how government could improve it’s woeful record for delivering IT. These included:

  • Developing a strategy to either replace legacy systems with newer, less costly systems, or open up the intellectual property rights to competitors.
  • Contracts to be broken up to allow for more effective competition and to increase opportunities for SMEs.
  • The Government must stop departments specifying IT solutions and ensure they specify what outcomes they wish to achieve.
  • Having a small group within government with the skills to both procure and manage a contract in partnership
    with its suppliers.
  • Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) should stay in post to oversee the delivery of the benefits for which they are accountable and which the project was intended to deliver.

At least partly as a result of these reports and their recommendations the Government Digital Service (GDS) was established in April 2011 under the leadership of Mike Bracken (previously Director of Digital Development at The Guardian newspaper). GDS works in three core areas:

  • Transforming 25 high volume key exemplars from across government into digital services.
  • Building and maintaining the consolidated GOV.UK website –  which brings government services together in one place.
  • Changing the way government procures IT services.

To the large corporates that have traditionally provided IT software, hardware and services to government GDS has had a big impact on how they do business. Not only does most business now have to be transacted through the governments own CloudStore but GDS also encourages a strong bias in favour of:

  • Software built on open source technology.
  • Systems that conform to open standards.
  • Using the cloud where it makes sense to do so.
  • Agile based development.
  • Working with small to medium enterprises (SME’s) rather than the large corporates seen as “an oligarchy that is ripping off the government“.

There can be no doubt that the sorry litany of public sector IT project failures, rightly or wrongly, have caused the pendulum to swing strongly in the direction that favours the above approach when procuring IT. However some argue that the pendulum has now swung a little too far. Indeed the UK Labour party has launched its own digital strategy review led by shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah. She talks about a need to be more context-driven, rather than transaction focused saying that while the GDS focus has been on redesigning 25 “exemplar” transactions, Labour feels this is missing the complexity of delivering public services to the individual. Labour is also critical of the GDSs apparent hostility to large IT suppliers saying it is an “exaggeration” that big IT suppliers are “the bogeymen of IT”. While Labour supports competition and creating opportunities for SMEs, she said that large suppliers “shouldn’t be locked out, but neither should they be locked in”.

The establishment of the GDS has certainly provided a wake up call for the large IT providers however, and here I agree with the views expressed by Ms Onwurah, context is crucial and it’s far too easy to take an overly simplistic approach to trying to solve government IT issues. A good example of this is that of open source software. Open source software is certainly not free and often not dramatically cheaper than proprietary software (which is often built using some elements of open source anyway) once support costs are taken into account. The more serious problem with open source is where the support from it comes from. As the recent Heartbleed security issue with OpenSSL has shown there are dangers in entrusting mission critical enterprise software to people who are not accountable (and even unknown).

One aspect to ‘solving’ wicked problems is to bring more of a multi-disciplinary approach to the table. I have blogged before about the importance of a versatilist approach in solving such problems. Like it or not, the world cannot be viewed in high contrast black and white terms. One of the attributes of a wicked problem is that there is often no right or wrong answer and addressing one aspect of the problem can often introduce other issues. Understanding context and making smart architecture decisions is one aspect to this. Another aspect is whether the so called SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) technologies can bring a radically new approach to the way government makes use of IT? This is something for discussion in future blog posts.

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