If internet retailers operated with as poor IT and processes as government, they would be unable to survive, according to government digital director Mike Bracken.
“If they [internet retailers] worked like the prison service works right now, behind the scenes you’d have people entering orders into stand-alone databases; typing, printing and posting letters; manually taking stock, and entering that data into yet another database.
“They wouldn’t survive in 2014, much less thrive.”
In a speech to the thinktank Institute for Government earlier this week, Bracken argued that the internet has had a ‘marginal’ effect on the civil service ‘until very recently’, despite having a revolutionising impact on most other sectors.
The main factors holding the government back from benefitting from digital technology are outdated, ‘big IT’, manual, outdated processes and a ‘fetish’ for complex policy options over frontline delivery, he said.
Bracken said the problem was partly down to a legacy of 15 years of clinging on a model of grouping of digital services into monolithic, multi-year IT contracts.
He added that past IT failures have encouraged a crippling fear of risk among civil servants.
However Bracken also took aim at archaic policy processes in parliament and the wider public sector, which he said prevent services from being simple.
He said: “In a digital age, traditional policy-making is largely broken. It is slow, inflexible, unnecessarily complicated, afraid of technology and afraid of change.”
“We must build a civil service with a bias for action and delivery at its centre, in place of an endless cycle of critiques.”
Bracken argued that people with digital skills should move from the periphery to the centre of public bodies.
‘Too many policy people’
He said: “There are too many policy people, and there’s far too much of it…I don’t want to see a policy person unless they’re next to a user and a developer.”
Bracken boasted of the success of the single government website GOV.UK, two years old this month.
But he said that instead of tinkering with services, government needs to completely rethink and redesign them end to end, using agile methods based on user research.
He said: “The transformation must go deeper. We must fix the shop floor as well as the shop window.”
Bracken warned: “In a world where everything is becoming quicker and easier, if government doesn’t become quicker and easier too, it will be intermediated away. Not out of existence, but to the point where it’s invisible to the public.”