Infrastructure Management

UK: Jerry Fishenden Plots A New Digital Future For Government

Jerry Fishenden is an academic, writer and IT leader who has led technology in a variety of organisations, including the Houses of Parliament, spent many years consulting on digital government and has strived to make sense of the near-infinite complexity of providing better public services for the UK. In a new book with two co-authors, Digitizing Government, he lays out his vision for how modern states can tap technology to design public services and best serve taxpayers.


Tell me about the authors and the idea behind Digitizing Government…

It all started back in 2013, when I was working with Alan Brown and Mark Thompson on some joint client engagements, helping organisations to update and modernise. We were also doing some comparative academic research into large-scale organisations and their use of technology. We’re a bit of an unusual mix, being both practitioners and academics.

Alan’s spent his career in a range of strategic roles in the software industry in both Europe and the United States, including as Chief Technology Officer for IBM Rational in Europe. He’s now Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Surrey’s Business School.

Mark’s a Director at Methods Group, which specialises in digitally enabled public services, as well as being Senior Lecturer in Information Systems at Cambridge Judge Business School.

And I run my own independent technology business, VoeTek, doing a mix of work spanning both private and public sectors, as well as being a Senior Research Fellow at Bath Spa University.

The idea behind our book first surfaced as a by-product of our work and research. We were seeing the same pattern of issues in a whole variety of organisations – particularly their struggle to understand and embrace what being a digital organisation actually means.

We thought it’d be good to share our experiences and those of the people and organisations we’d been working with. A good old-fashioned book somehow seemed the best way of doing this – trying to capture the “why”, “what” and “how” of digital change.

It’s the first time I’ve worked on a book with two other authors – it’s been a rewarding and challenging experience, trying to distil our thoughts and perspectives into some semblance of coherence and to find a narrative that works across the complex space that is “digital”.


You write about the need to learn from modern business-to-consumer technology and how it has evolved, for example the need to build ecosystems and to learn from communal, crowdsourced ideas…

Yes, it’s one of the key points really that it’s not just about the technology, but about the organisational culture and ecosystem too. Sure, you can knock together some technology, stick an API on it and call it a platform. But it’s not just the engineering that matters: it’s also essential to get the entrepreneurial bit right too if the platform is going to grow and thrive. We want the book to appeal as much to organisational leaders, managers and frontline workers as the IT crowd: the move to digital will impact everyone.

Government obviously works in a very different space to your traditional commercial start-up trying to build a multi-sided platform. If you look at the ideas of Tim O’Reilly, who created the term Government as a Platform, he’s talking about government becoming a genuinely open platform player, one that allows people inside and outside government to innovate. A form of government where outcomes don’t get locked down and specified beforehand, but instead are left to evolve and refine through interactions between government and citizens. It’s a fundamental shift in the way we think about government, one where it becomes a service provider enabling its user community.


You worked on the inside of government at a senior level. Was the experience a shock in terms of wastefulness of ICT operations?

I had a lot of experience of managing technology and helping organisations adapt and change in the NHS, the Houses of Parliament and the City financial regulator earlier in my career.

I gained fresh insight into the reality of what was happening in public sector IT more recently when I was appointed as the specialist adviser to the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee inquiry. We heard a lot of hard, and damning, evidence, much of which was provided in private and in confidence from both the civil service and supplier side and therefore couldn’t be included in the published report.

Some of what was happening in government technology was absurdly out of step with similar scale organisations in the private sector. One example was a system in a major government department that cost over a hundred times what the same size and complexity of system had cost to put into a large private sector organisation. That scale of waste, when you’re talking in the millions of pounds, is frankly unacceptable. In the time I’ve been working in IT, I’ve seen a lot of the in-house intelligence about technology become outsourced and removed from far too many public sector organisations – something that’s thankfully being reversed at the moment.


The Blair government spent heavily to modernise UK government services – that must have been a net ‘good thing’, no?

Blair’s idea of helping modernise our public services and putting the citizen at the centre was bang on the mark, but the gap between the promises of milk and honey and what was actually done on the ground was huge. Governments of various colours have been trying to crack how to use technology to help reinvent the public sector since at least 1994 when they launched the first “one-stop website” for information on government services. Yet time and time again, between this long-standing, cross-party vision to use IT as part of public service renewal and its physical realisation comes the gap. It’s this long-standing dark void between aspiration for better public services enabled by technology and the reality of the often poor and ridiculously expensive execution on the ground that we’re hoping to begin to tackle with our book.


Some people argue that Whitehall gets what it deserves because it can’t compete with the incentives of the private sector (‘Pay peanuts and you get monkeys’). Do you agree and what do you make of pay grades in government/state IT in the UK?

I’m not sure I do agree – particularly not about peanuts and monkeys. For one thing, money isn’t the sole motivating factor in many people’s careers – there’s a great sense of public service and a deep commitment in many of the civil servants I’ve worked with, both when I’ve been a public employee myself and also when working on the vendor side or as an interim. At the top grades, some of the overall packages compare favourably with what’s on offer in the private sector too, so it’s not as one-sided as it’s often portrayed.

Right now I’d also say government is one of the best places to be if you’re serious about using technology to improve the way organisations operate. Many public employees have been frustrated for years by the poor quality of their technology and the fact that it was all thrown over the fence to a few large suppliers. You just can’t isolate the strategic use of technology from an organisation like that – the whole way you design and run services these days has technology running through their very core, not as some remote afterthought. The idea someone else should have control of such a key part of your own organisation’s strategy seems absurd.


You have also worked vendor-side, at Microsoft where you were National Technology Officer. Tell me about that role…

I was essentially Microsoft’s chief technology officer – the lead technology adviser and strategist for the UK – and I came into the role after helping drive a lot of the thinking, innovation and growth in Microsoft’s UK, EMEA and global approach to the public sector. Craig Mundie, the Corporate VP in charge of global strategy at the time, saw a need to have senior local insight and expertise to deal with a whole complex of technology and policy-related issues. So the NTO role was created in major subsidiaries to be the lead technology adviser and strategist.

The role involved providing leadership on all aspects of Microsoft’s technology, policy and strategy, being a main media spokesman, meeting a lot with customers (particularly the critical ones – of which, I might add, there was no shortage), providing keynotes and also spending a lot of time in Redmond with the product groups. The NTO community was very strong at its peak and we provided raw customer feedback to Redmond, often taking a lot of heat internally for doing so. We also had a great relationship with Microsoft Research, who do great stuff – it’s just a shame the product groups don’t move a lot faster and do a better and timelier job of utilising them better.


An enjoyable experience on the whole?

Very much so, particularly in the early days when it involved setting the strategy and direction, and having a very real impact on Microsoft’s future plans – not only in terms of products, but also its relationships with senior executives and helping meet their needs. We also helped shape and inform Microsoft’s approach and commitment to things like privacy, open standards and the way it needed to mature its relationship with governments and stop knee-jerking about open source software like a teething, petulant child.

I guess I realised I’d been in the role too long when a senior executive said to me, in all seriousness, that I was spending too much time with customers and not enough time in the office. That was the very opposite ethos of the company I’d once joined. You don’t help many customers or shift much product sitting talking to each other in an office. Hopefully Satya Nadella can help Microsoft reinvent itself – it needs to rediscover its earlier passion about being a technology company trying to do the right thing for the customer rather than by banging on about licences, product specs and patents, without listening to what it is people need.


You’ve also been involved in analysing IT spending and getting value for taxpayers? Do you think things are improving?

Well, I guess no-one said it would be easy, but, yes, things are moving in the right direction even if it might not be as fast as I’d like. It requires a strong will to see this through, but I’m optimistic that enough folks in government are in it for the long haul and will want to see it through. Many of the existing supplier agreements and contracts make immediate improvements difficult if not impossible. But a lot of the old contracts are coming to an end over the next few years and the opportunity’s going to be there to do them in a very different way, drag them into the twenty-first century and finally begin to overhaul the way our public services are designed, delivered, operated and maintained. There’s a whole load of ugliness in the background that needs very careful stewardship to move away from successfully – old systems that are creaking at the seams, running the risk both to current services, but also impeding efforts to modernise and improve them.


Government gets criticised for buying from the biggest IT suppliers. Do you think this is one of the big problems?

The main thing is that government needs to know what it’s doing -- what it wants to achieve and the best option to achieve that -- and then use the right suppliers for the right job. It needs to have the insight to know when and where each type of supplier can play. There’s a place for suppliers of all sizes, but the market has to be genuinely open so that the right players get their chance on a genuinely level playing field. In the past far too much was naively procurement-led – chucking everything into one huge contract that only the very biggest companies had the scale and stamina to swallow. There was no intelligence applied to what really needed to be done and the best way of doing it – including breaking out commodity elements to be competitively procured in an open marketplace, and those more bespoke things specific to government, that needed to be nurtured closer to home. What was broken in the past, was all of these very different needs were all lumped together – both the cheap, utility needs and the more complex, bespoke needs. They were also contracted over impossibly long time scales, with pricing that rapidly became absurdly out of touch with what was happening in the market – today’s cheap hosting compared to what’s in those old contracts is a great example of that. Teasing these things apart is just one important piece of restoring a strategic approach to technology, one where, as Liam Maxwell, the government’s CTO has said, government retakes control of its own destiny.


Are the implicit suggestions of cronyism that some critics make valid?

It definitely happens – or used to. When I was advising the Parliamentary inquiry, one small supplier provided a verbatim transcript of a tape recording they’d made. Let’s just say it didn’t put the government department involved in a particularly good light – but it was the first tangible example I think the MPs had seen of how appallingly some of the smaller suppliers were being treated.  Another small supplier had all of their bright ideas, IP and designs snatched by the incumbent supplier, who then proceeded to screw it up and overcharge the department. Far too much of the reality of what happened in the past was difficult to evidence, taking place in casual conversations in pubs and the like. I’m hopeful things are on a much better course now, but smaller players need to know there’s always a trusted route to flag concerns if they need to – without feeling that will negatively impact their ability to work in government.


Most recently you’ve been back working within the corridors of power on a broad initiative to improve government digital services. How did that come about and what progress do you think is being made?

It came about after I’d finished helping the Parliamentary Committee, and the report had been published. I was asked to advise and assist the government with implementing the report’s main recommendations. That’s involved me engaging at various points, ranging from helping bootstrap the technology spend controls process to doing detailed reviews of some of the major programmes. There’s some great talent and a great passion inside government departments to make this work – the challenge is the time it’s going to take to unpick it all and to nurture a whole new approach. After all, this isn’t just about putting a new bit of spit and polish on the same tired old transactions and services that are already out there, but about rethinking and redesigning public services, rebuilding them around citizens’ and businesses’ most pressing needs and asking some very hard questions about whether existing roles, functions, processes and even organisations are needed in the digital age. I think we all recognise this is a long haul, something requiring cross-party support to see it through.


Have you seen instances of best practice anywhere across the world that could act as a model for government IT initiatives everywhere?

I don’t think there’s a single, simple, “cut out and keep” example of a digital era government anywhere. Moving something of the scale and complexity of government “brownfield” operations into the shiny new digital world is no trivial task. There’s a lot government can apply from the platform-based models of the commercial sector, both at the engineering and entrepreneurial levels, but doing so in government involves some very different issues and skills, including dealing with that ugliness of the existing estate and everything around it.

There are real pockets of best practice here in the UK – the work of the Government Digital Service has been internationally acknowledged, for example – but the challenge now is to take them to scale and make it stick. This isn’t just about the technology, but about how public sector organisations will need to change too. Otherwise it’ll just end up being another turn of the wheel we’ve been on for the past 20 years, where technology ends up fossilising the past and preserving the expensive ways of doing things the way they’ve always been done.

If our book helps nudge us all forwards even just a tiny bit further along the path towards a truly digital era public sector I’ll be happy.


Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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