Five steps to happier citizens

5 steps to happier citizens

5 steps to happier citizens

The primary goal of this five point manifesto is to improve citizens’ and businesses experiences and outcomes when using public services.  Radically refocusing Governments on the citizen by moving resources away from the bureaucratic back office and data handling towards more proactive citizen facing roles is the goal.  How could this be done?

Well for a start, with increased adoption of digital technologies, transforming government into a platform of real world and IT services that would engage and delight the citizen and businesses alike.  The short name for this idea is Government as a Platform (GaaP).  However progress across the globe towards this vision is worryingly slow; perhaps digital transformation should have its own manifesto?

1. Build a platform from policy outwards

First we need to replace the current professional politicians and policy-driving civil servants with those that have recent experience of exploiting digital technology to reshape organizations.  The ideas, thought processes and most importantly policies for leaning and digitizing government are unlikely to come from a Philosophy, Politics and Economics graduate without any real world experience.

Now clearly its unlikely that politicians will voluntarily make way, but the practice of fast tracking civil/public servants straight from the best Universities into policy shaping roles must change.  In the distant past I talked to such policy gurus to simplify a notoriously complex area where two areas of policy were converging.  I only found out later that the meetings were for courtesy only; the new legislation had already been cut and paste from the original sources into the bill to get it passed on time.  The new policy (and the systems) would be more complex than the old two put together as the incompatible bits of legislation conflicted.

Inject new digital natives directly into the civil service policy areas of Departments, not placed in IT oriented roles where their influence comes too late in the decision-making life-cycle.

2. No more than fifty people on a project

Each person can only write and test so much good code a day – and every conversation, interrupt and distraction cuts that amount.  Make projects as small as possible and focused on minimizing communications overheads.  A decade or so ago, I called out that my project had grown too large and complex to deliver, resulting in it being stopped.  With hundreds working on it by that point I was deeply unpopular. My experience is that any project larger than fifty people will have overheads that cut its efficiency markedly.  If your project is more complex than that, then give it more time, not people; or split it into genuinely independent projects.  Fred Brooks wrote The Mythical Man Month forty years ago; like a lot of revered texts, the world would be a better place if people followed it not just reading or quoting it.

3. Transfer real risks

As CTO for IBM’s European Public Sector services business I get to see lots of Government procurements.  Many are flawed.  The especially ‘brave’ ones are those that look for a fixed price first-of-a-kind full-life-cycle solutions based on a sub-standard set of requirements (some of them have even been ‘cut and paste’).  The unscrupulous supplier bids low and change controls the customer for more revenue and profit; the innovative and user focused elements of the project will get short shrift and the delivery suffers.  Governments should adopt the Wardley Map approach to help shape their migration to Government as a Platform.  The related procurements will then probably be smaller, be more end-user focused and make more sense to suppliers too.  Shape procurements from user need and sensible risk transfer.

4. Understand your constraints

Well over a decade ago I rescued a digital project that had been stubbornly  stuck at 80% complete for over two months.  Just a few weeks ago I saw a national government digital project go live, that was unable to support more than one user at a time.  Both projects built by the self-proclaimed digital experts of their time.  Both had forgotten, or perhaps were unaware, that the existing technology they were working with worked differently from their digital technologies.  Ensure constraints (whether system, regulatory or budgetary) are appropriately understood and influence the design in a timely manner.  This was a major feature of the book I co-authored with Kevin Jenkins called Eating the IT Elephant: Moving from greenfield to brownfield development.  I am dismayed to see the lessons of fifteen years ago being learned again the hard way.

5. Build local, share globally

Few countries have a surplus of deep IT skills.  Government as a Platform is a rallying call to bring on apprentices and develop in-country skills for development and evolution of the platform.  Deploy all suitable in-country resources (from Small Medium Enterprises to the largest Systems Integrator, men and women, atheists to Zoroasters) to propel Governments to nationally grown and evolving open platforms as quickly as possible.  Create lots of small projects spread across many digital centers, sharing outputs that conform to an open set of standards.

Share what you’re doing via open licenses for design and development.  Work with like-minded countries that are doing the same.

So in summary to radically reshape and government as a platform that delights citizens:

  1. Replace policy driving civil servants with those that have recent experience of exploiting digital technology to reshape organizations.  Transform the government to a platform model.
  2. Keep projects as small as possible and focused on minimizing communications overheads.
  3. Structure procurements around user needs and do sensible risk transfer making best use of supplier strengths.
  4. Ensure constraints are appropriately understood and influence the design in a timely manner.
  5. Deploy all suitable in-country resources to propel the Government to a nationally grown and evolving open platform as quickly as possible using the very best global practices and capabilities.

At time of posting in the UK, Baroness Martha Lane Fox has the support of more than 10,000 people for an independent, inclusive and pervasive institution called Dot Everyone.  Replicating the UK’s success in other creative industries (such as gaming, television and special effects) to the Internet is the aim.  There are close synergies with the ideas and goals of Government as a Platform.  You may wish to follow the link and sign up.  However at this point it is not clear if she will Dot Everyone in the UK.  Realistically, however, can the UK, or indeed your country afford not to do so?


Richard Hopkins is an IBM Distinguished Engineer, part of the leadership team of IBM’s Academy of Technology and is a member of the UK Government’s National Audit Office Digital Advisory Panel.  He has some IBM stock.  The views expressed above are very much his own.

Distinguished Engineer - GBS Public Sector Europe CTO

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