Is Government Failing in a Digital World?

In a recent article, Gerry McGovern a well-known digital blogger states that Government, like all organizations, claims to exist to serve citizens but in reality, is usually more interested in serving itself. Digital is increasingly exposing government incompetence and how remote from the real life of people so many in government are (particularly at a senior level).

This year, Canada`s Auditor General Michael Ferguson wrote, “we see government programs that are not designed to help those who have to navigate them, programs where the focus is more on what civil servants are doing than on what citizens are getting, where delivery times are long, where data is incomplete, and where public reporting does not provide a clear picture of what departments have done.”

He goes on to state, “our audits come across these same problems in different organizations time and time again …. when we come back to audit the same area again, we often find that program results have not improved.”

Paul Shetler resigned as Australia’s government head of digital transformation. He has talked about how it became impossible for him to witness a string of “cataclysmic” IT failures, about how this is “not a crisis of IT” but a “crisis of government”.

He criticized the government’s response to its latest IT crisis, telling Guardian Australia it was symptomatic of a culture of blame aversion within the bureaucracy. “It is literally blame aversion, it is not risk aversion,” Shetler said. “They’re trying to avoid the blame, and they’re trying to cast it wide. “The justifications that have been given I think are just another example of the culture of ‘good news’ reporting, i.e. only good news goes up through the bureaucracy.  “It is literally blame aversion, it is not risk aversion,”. “They’re trying to avoid the blame, and they’re trying to cast it wide.

McGovern asks what is Government good for? Does it actually serve ordinary people or just special interests? Is government capable of dealing with digital transformation? Government just assumes it can continue being the same old government. There are, of course, a great many government workers who do excellent work, but they often do this great work in conflict with the very institutions they work for. As you go up the bureaucratic management tree the eyes look ever upwards, seeking to please the politicians and massage egos.

“You’ve got an entire bureaucracy of IT bureaucrats who are backed by large vendors,” Shetler states. These two groups are locked in a love-hate affair. Most of the people involved in this sordid affair have never once seen an actual citizen use the IT Titanic monstrosities that they allow to sail out with unrelenting regularity. The idea of creating something that’s simple to use is utterly alien to these people. Citizens are supposed to use what they’re given and be grateful. Only when things explode in an absolute mess are they forced to grudgingly look around and find someone else to blame.

“Policy is not just something you dream up on a piece of paper,” Shetler states. “It’s actually also the results that you see on the streets.” And that’s the very problem with government. It measures itself based on the creation of the policy and its ‘communication’ to the media. And the further up in government you go, the more relentless that navel-gazing focus becomes.

The problems that plagued the launch of — the online data hub and insurance marketplace central to healthcare reform in the USA will someday fill a book.

In Canada, we have the fiasco known as the Phoenix payroll system, a state-of-the-art computerized marvel with which the government has underpaid tens of thousands of its employees, overpaid thousands more, and paid nothing at all to the rest for months at a time, all at an estimated extra cost of $50 million.

Shared Services Canada, responsible for all of the federal government’s computer operations, hoped to have installed a new unified email system across all government departments by March 2018 that was supposed to have been finished by March 2015.

There is also an attempt to bring all of the Canadian government’s 1,500 websites onto a common platform. Originally budgeted at $1.5 million, it was to have been completed by March 2017. With just 0.05 per cent of the estimated 17 million pages of federal content online having been moved over to the new site, it is now aiming at a December 2017 deadline — at 10 times the original cost. There are also the internal costs which are now projected to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, possibly even $1 billion. The new deadline is widely regarded as a fantasy.

As McGovern points out Government must become useful again, and to do that it must measure the outcome of the policy. It must measure the use of what it creates and rapidly learn and evolve based on use. What is digital transformation? What is being transformed? Digital is just the enabler of transformation. It is the government, the senior bureaucrats and the politicians who must be transformed.





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