Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Mark Balchin (CSR 14)

Are the Government’s plans for reform, as outlined in the Civil Service Reform Plan and related documents, likely to lead to beneficial changes?

1. In an age of public sector cuts, it is right that the practices and budget of the Civil Service are also questioned. The Civil Service Reform Plan primarily aims for better delivery of public services, while making savings to help reduce the budget deficit. Decentralisation, the embracing of technology, and taking lessons from the private sector are all mechanisms which hope for a smoother-running, more efficient Civil Service.

2. This submission focuses on the Civil Service welcoming technology and argues that the Government is wrong to assume that information technology (I.T) will provide automatic positive outcomes. In essence, this submission illustrates intrinsic problems the Civil Service will need to overcome if they are to successfully utilise technology:

There is no evidence that civil servants will willingly or easily adapt to the wider introduction of technology into their work.

There are important considerations the Civil Service need to recognise in order to use technology to engage with the public successfully.

3. The Civil Service Reform Plan seems to suggest two aims for the use of technology in the Civil Service. While not contradictory, they remain firmly separate objectives which are either confused, or not made adequately clear, by the Civil Service Reform Plan:

First, the Civil Service Reform Plan has an internal role for technology: the use of I.T to deliver public services, for example through the “Digital by Default” approach.

Second, the Civil Service Reform Plan has an external role for technology: to engage with the public, touching on ideas of “Digital Democracy”, or United States inspired “Open Government”.

4. In terms of the internal role, there is one significant problem I wish to tackle: the Civil Service, and the Government, has a terrible track record when it comes to embracing, and using, technology.

5. Firstly, I.T incorporation has been largely fragmented, bureaucratic and excessively costly, according to the Operational Efficiency Programme. Spending on I.T must be used effectively, and the Government is wrong to assume that technology will inevitably lead to higher efficiency. The Civil Service Reform Plan’s emphasis on inter-departmental engagement should help with technological cohesiveness across the Civil Service, which should help ensure that I.T projects compliment, rather than contradict one another. Investing in I.T is right in the age we live, but I.T spending should be subject to similar scrutiny that other budgets are currently faced with.

6. Secondly, there is simply not a big enough appetite amongst Senior Civil Servants to embrace a new technological “revolution” within the Civil Service. There is an “anti-I.T” culture within the Government, where Whitehall Chief Information Officers (CIOs) retain a narrow focus on technology, and Permanent Secretaries often do not understand how technology leads to desirable outcomes.1 The Civil Service Reform Plan’s requirement of a “Digital Strategy” from each department will have little impact on changing this fundamental feature of the Civil Service’s culture. Attitudes need to be changed. However much training is offered, Senior Civil Servants will be reluctant to learn. In this respect, a universal “Digital by Default” is possible, but not any time soon. For it to happen, there needs to be a new generation of Senior Civil Servants who are familiar with I.T practices and who realise its benefits. In the meantime, the current generation of Senior Civil Servants will remain sceptical about the use of I.T, and will likely continue to see it as a domain to be outsourced to “nerds”, while they get on with their “real” job which is to formulate policy and engage with ministers.

7. I.T does not feature highly in the consciousness of civil servants in the decision-making process; it is an after-thought which enters the decision making process too far “downstream”.2 I.T projects have suffered from severe delay or failure because technology has not been thought about soon enough.3 It is vital that the new Implementation Unit in the Cabinet Office pay attention to how I.T fits into policy early on. The Open Policy approach indicated in the Civil Service Reform Plan should help in this respect, taking vital advice from the private sector.

8. Looking at the external role given to technology by the Civil Service Reform Plan, there are three potential problems I wish to tackle. Firstly, there is doubt over whether internet users are mature enough to engage with Government using technology. The internet is used for a vast number of reasons, including research, social engagement, and idea publication. But whether users of the internet are yet comfortable, or mature enough, to use the internet to engage with government remains to be seen. The Government should not rely on the internet as being an inevitable medium to engage even the most savvy internet user.

9. Furthermore, social media technology especially may not itself be mature enough yet to be used for Government engagement with the public. Recently, there have been numerous examples of celebrity, individual, and political blunder on social media sites such as “Twitter”. Fleeting, spare-of-the-moment ideas or comments which have been posted online, can now spell the end of a career. In some cases it has led to criminal investigation. Using social media is a direct and effective way to engage with certain cohorts of the population, and its use is becoming increasingly widespread. However, both public officials and members of the public may be unwilling to share some views, wary of the potential misinterpretation which may occur. The Civil Service Reform Plan’s embracement of social media is a positive step in acknowledging and using changing technology used by a wide section of our society. But the problems with entering these realms should not be underestimated. The Government Digital Service’s Social Media Guidance For Civil Servants gives some advice in this domain, but lacks emphasis of the dangers of social media, for example the impact one’s personal account may have on one’s career is likely to be greater than anticipated. And lines drawn between the official and the personal will be blurry.

10. Some internet media involves anonymity. This has both advantages and disadvantages. People can be bolder and perhaps more honest about what they think about policies if they can remain anonymous. This can positively spark an interactive, even informed discussion which the Government can act upon. On the other hand, internet anonymity can be used as a tool to undermine Government policy, or insult individual officials for example, without repercussions.

11. Thirdly, there is a wider issue here of digital exclusivity, a “Digital Divide”.4 While the vast majority of people now use the internet, access is still not universal. For example, some elderly people remain internet-illiterate. Making Government information digital will reach the vast majority, but it must be remembered that some will remain excluded.

12. This evidence submission has tried to highlight the problems associated with technology in Government. The Civil Service Reform Plan simplifies the transition to the wider use of technology within the Civil Service; to become “Digital by Default”. It also assumes that technology will automatically provide efficiency savings. The past has shown that this is not inevitably the case. Finally, the Civil Service Reform Plan does not adequately emphasise the problems with using technology to engage with the public.

December 2012

1 Michael Hallsworth et al, “Installing New Drivers: How to Improve Government’s use of I.T”, Institute for Government, (London, Institute for Government, 2009), p.18.

2 Ibid., p.21.

3 Justine Stephen, et al, “System Error”, p.20.

4 Neil Selwyn, “‘E-stablishing’ an Inclusive Society? Technology, Social Exclusion and UK Government Policy Making”, Journal of Social Policy, Vol.31 Issue 1 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002), p.11.

Prepared 5th September 2013