Saturday 12 April 2014

Digital government, empowerment and the Estonian fallacy

Don't be fooled into believing that "digital government"
will automatically deliver empowerment

Last Sunday night/Monday morning DMossEsq started a post. It's a good thing he fell asleep before finishing it and you never had to read it. It wasn't getting anywhere:

The lesson today is taken from the Book of Onwurah and our text is:
Labour’s history, our roots, are in the empowerment of people. All too often government is something done to the people. Digital government must not be like that.
That is as it is recorded in the Guardian version of the Estonian Bible of Digital Government. In the Civil Service World version, it is written:
We see digital government as a way to empower citizens and enable the public sector to do more with less; the Tories see it as just another way to slim down the state and deliver a public sector which does less with less.
The "more with less" tag will be recognised of course from an earlier lesson, Less for more:
... Not so fast, said, Ian Watmore, Chief Operating Officer of ERG [the Efficiency and Reform Group], whose motto, devised by Lord Brown of Madingley, Chairman of ERG and previously Chairman of BP and the Gulf of Mexico, is "more for less" ...

Then in Thursday's Times David Aaronovitch re-kindled interest in the unfinished post. He was writing about the letter sent to the Guardian by 19 "members of the progressive community" about Labour's manifesto for the May 2015 general election here in the UK:
If it were to sell this vision, Labour required an election manifesto based on a list of principles including “prevention of the causes of our social, environmental, physical and mental health problems, which requires a holistic and long-term approach to governance”, and the “empowerment of everybody . . . to enable them to play a full role as active citizens”.

This “empowerment of everybody” would need much devolution of power, said the letter, before ending in a peroration that included the assertion that “the era of building the capacity and platforms for people to ‘do things for themselves, together’ is now upon us” ...

When you write this badly, when you are so unclear that even experts in your field cannot decipher your intention, there is a reason for it. It could, of course, simply be that you are an idiot. But two other explanations are more likely: either that you don’t really know what you mean yourself; or that you do know, but you’d rather not spell it out.
It's not just the Labour tribe hoping to win by banging on about empowerment, as Mr Aaronovitch would have known if he had only read the DMossEsq post that was never published:

The Conservative tribe – the "Tories" as the prophet Onwurah calls them – also invoke empowerment. The October 2002 Book of Carswell, for example, is actually called Direct Democracy – empowering people to make their lives better.

And the Lib-Dem tribe, too. Repeatedly.

Here is the Lib-Dem prophet Davey:
Government, business and consumer groups commit to midata vision of consumer empowerment
... Today’s announcement marks the first time globally there has been such a Government-backed initiative to empower individuals ...
And Davey's successor, the Lib-Dem Lamb:
The Government launched the consumer empowerment strategy, Better Choices Better Deals: Consumers Powering Growth, in April 2011. The strategy set out ways for Government and others to help give consumers more power in a rapidly changing and complex economy.
And Lamb's successor, the Lib-Dem Swinson, with her midata Innovation Lab. And her successor in turn, the Lib-Dem Willott, who detects "progress on the consumer empowerment strategy".

It's up to these politicians to explain clearly what they mean by "empowerment". If they can. We must be able to answer the question what is this power that our politicians are so graciously granting back to us. Only then can we the public judge their offering.

The one germane point to add here is this. Don't be fooled into believing that "digital government" will automatically deliver empowerment.

That's what many of these politicians are advocating. And they're wrong. It's the Estonian fallacy.

Once we all maintain personal data stores with total strangers (the Government Digital Service's spooky so-called "identity providers") and once all government applications are scudding around out of control in the cloud, digital government could just as easily tighten the grip of Westminster and Whitehall – or Amazon, Google and Facebook – and perpetuate the tradition of government as "something done to the people", as Ms Onwurah aptly puts it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said "empowerment" needs a re think on management style away from "command and control" which senior bureaucrats love to one that is called "systems thinking". Such an approach is about a bottom up empowerment of people and was used by Dr W Edwards Deming who was credited as instrumental in the spectacular rise of Japanese industry after World War II and influenced many of the world's most innovative managers in the ensuing decades. This booklet is a good read

We may not have been at physical war but with a £1.5Trillion debt and global turmoil as we face major “resets” in the financial markets; not helped by the US delays in facing reality see this good summary from Reuters

We really do need to re think how “we” work but politicians on both sides use easy word often in ignorance of the real world. I think your summary just confirms that. I have been very critical of GDS as they have completely hood winked politicians with their very superficial “digital by default” and not recognising that 'Digital is about your business operations' as articulated by Sally Howes She understands the big picture (should be running GDS …….!). It is about people and yes the citizen should be empowered to do more self help but let’s remember the civil servants and volunteers at the front line where real empowerment can make a big difference.

So how does this happen? Well for sure it is a lot more than the geeks at GDS building web pages and "personal data stores" which is as far as Government have got so far! As Dr Deming indicates it is about changing management style – with need for fewer bosses. There in lies the real challenge?

Today we have a big advantage with software that now reflects the real world of work and supports people in achieving the desired outcomes. Empowerment needs transparency of activity to allow knowledge to be used to help continuously improve the way work is undertaken and using such supporting adaptive software will contribute to this. This is debated here Sadly GDS just do not understand or want to understand so suggest politicians read that booklet and do some deep research…..and then ask why have we missed this….?

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