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ICT-enabled policy instruments set for key role in Whitehall's Brexit policy rethink

David Bicknell Published 29 June 2016

Research paper says digital government must start with the political process of policy design


An influential research paper on digital government published last week which argued that ICT has a part to play in the future of policy design and administration, but through the lens of policy instruments, not technology, is likely to get its wish post-Brexit.

The paper, "Digital Government: overcoming the systemic failure of transformation" concluded that digital technology has "huge potential" to contribute to the functions of government and public administration. But it argued, so far the building of information portals and putting transactions on government web sites has not realised the great expectations for it in terms of "transforming government".

Against the backdrop of the "Brexit" fallout from last week's EU referendum, the research paper - which was published before the referendum's outcome - suggests that to achieve a transformation of government through the use of digital technologies, governments will require a complete reversal of the current way of looking at the challenge.

It argues that instead of viewing the problem from the point of view of the internet, governments must start with the political process of policy design.

In particular, they must look at how technology can change the range and characteristics of policy instruments -- the tools that governments choose from to intervene in the economy, society and environment to make change, such as taxes, benefits, licences, information campaigns and more tangible things like public services and infrastructure.

"These are the practical results of government, and only when technology changes those can we say it has transformed government," the paper said.

The paper makes clear that the purpose of a government is to make, implement and administer policy decisions on behalf of the community for which it has responsibility, for example a nation or a city, on matters that affect the lives of that community as a whole. These typically could include rules of conduct, the spending of community funds on infrastructure or looking after people, or the rules for taxing people to raise those funds.

The paper says that in relation to digital government, the dominant assumption has been that "government is a service industry", with a private sector model in mind. Amazon is an example that is frequently cited.

"This is dangerously misleading," the research says. "In the case of the application of technology to the public sector, it has led to attempts to overlay the processes of newspapers, banks, and retailers on to public functions -- the result is a model based on broadcasting information and simple transactions. Yes, some of that does apply to the public sector, but it isn't what it is really about. Citizens are not customers."

It went on, "The existence and functions of the majority of the public sector arise directly from the choice of policy implementation instruments, determined at the moment of a politician's decision on policy design.

"The range of instruments available to achieve policy goals is vast, covering methods of taking money, giving money, giving permission, registering, criminalising, regulating, contracting, and acting directly through state organisations.

The paper said, "Once the chosen instrument (or more likely, set of instruments) to implement a policy is encoded in law by parliament, congress, a council, or whatever is the relevant national or regional legislature, the public administration sets about creating and executing the necessary functions. The officials do what the law tells them to do (it can even tell them how to do it): sometimes that is called bureaucracy.

"Looking closely we can see that most parts of the public sector can be classified as either being instruments in themselves (like a healthcare, transport or prison service), or organisations administering instruments like taxes and benefits.

The paper suggests that public sector reform is notably about changing a set of policy instruments.

"Digital technology (including how it manages data) can change the economics -- thus feasibility -- of instruments and open up possibilities for new ones. The London Congestion Charge illustrates how a combination of number plate recognition, electronic payment systems and data matching has transformed the enforcement of a toll -and-permit instrument from roadside booths, cash, and paper tickets that would make congestion worse. There would be other ways (i.e. instruments) for managing congestion of course, using technology or not, and that's the point: the options for design are changed.

Now, with the potential impact of Brexit in mind, the paper's co-author Paul Waller argues that ICT-enabled policy instruments are the way forwards.

"However, you feel about the result of the referendum, one thing is certain. There's going to be an awful lot of policy development work to be done in government departments in the coming years.

"As new policy instruments are designed to replace EU-related ones to meet new policy goals, there's a huge opportunity to really make the most of technology to achieve those goals in the best way we can.

"Our paper sets out the foundations for how to do that and move on from automating existing administration."

He continued, "Two things must happen. First, technical experts must immerse themselves in the complex policy challenges and processes that departments are faced with. Then they can constructively help the policy makers.

"They must learn about the language and practices of their policy colleagues. That will be hard. But buzzwords like 'digital', 'platform', 'agile' and so on will not register with policy divisions, government lawyers and parliamentary clerks working under huge pressure to redesign the UK's administrative legislation.

"Second, new policy designs and instruments will need implementation projects. The potential number and scale of these is mind-boggling. All will be complex. Many will be interconnected. Many will involve digital technology. These policy projects are nothing like building web sites, computer systems or infrastructure, and approaches based on those go out of the window. An immediate and deep rethink of how to manage a large number of projects like these is essential."

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