It is my firm belief that public services can be at the cutting edge of digital developments. In a previous BVEX blog I eulogized about the savings in both customer time and actual cost that came from the Passport Office sharing digital information with the DVLA. Yet despite so much excellent practice, there is still a lot more that could be done.
Related Article: Behold! Successful Government IT Projects!
Having recently sat through two, very painful, election nights, I am increasingly bemused at the archaic paper-based system that determines the next government or our position within the European community. Hour after hour we sit there waiting for thousands of people across the land to painstakingly (and presumably, when factoring in inevitable human error, inaccurately) tot up votes, and then finally declare the decision of the various electorates. I imagine that their counting fingers and adding brains are very sore at the end of such a monotonous exercise. Sometimes recounts are even demanded. Yes, there is a sense of excitement and tradition about all of this, but the results are far too important to be subjected to what is tantamount to theatre. The whole situation is nonsensical to me. Computers are trusted with all the money in the world but not to determine how many millions of people answered a yes/no question? I am a postal voter, I hope an intelligent one, and even I had to reread the instructions on my vote – which slip goes into which envelope, which part has to be signed – and then trust that the Royal Mail dispatches my vote safely, the envelope opened and contents diligently read. Yet, all around us, people are engaging in virtual reality, using their mobile phones to catch an imaginary Pokémon lurking in their next door neighbour’s hedge. We can manage to engage in an artificial reality world for fun, but aren’t able to use an app on our mobile phone to exercise our right to vote.
At least Estonia has the right idea. In 1996, its government instigated a national ‘Tiger Leap’ project designed to prioritise the development of appropriate Information Technology infrastructure within the country, linking education institutions together, digitally. This project provided it with a core group of technology enthusiasts and practitioners, who could champion subsequent e-developments. Two elements were critical to the country’s e-journey. The first of these was the development of X-Road, which according to e-Estonia.com is “the backbone of e-Estonia. It’s the invisible yet crucial environment that allows the nation’s various e-services databases, both in the public and private sector, to link up and operate in harmony.” Second was the national ID Card project, which enables every citizen to be identifiable electronically. Both initiatives provide essential digital foundations for the digital society systems to come. Consequently, Estonia was able to hold its first e-elections in 2005.
The country has evolved its e-services to the extent that Estonians can now vote at home, sign a legally binding contract via their mobile phones, access e-prescriptions and 70% of all of their medical records are online.
The point is, that the Estonian Government and its public services have been pursuing this agenda for a long time. Yes, we have some significant achievements, but we need to catch up, and fast. To some extent, as trailblazers, the country has carved a path for the UK Government and provides the following list of dos and don’ts to aid our digital public service journey:
Do: Create a decentralized, distributed system, so that all existing components can be linked and new ones added, no matter what platform they use
Don’t: Try to force everyone to use a centralized database or system, which won’t meet their needsand will be seen as a burden rather than a benefit
Do: Be a smart purchaser, buying the most appropriate systems developed by the private sector
Don’t: Waste millions contracting large, slow development projects that result in inflexible systems
Do: Find systems that are already working, allowing for faster implementation
Don’t: Rely on pie-in-the-sky solutions that take time to develop and may not work
This list reminds me of Eric Ries’s Lean Start Up methodology and its ‘build measure learn’ accelerated feedback loop. I understand that this improvement practice carries weight in some public sector IT teams and so let’s hope that our electoral system catches up fast. Perhaps then I can be disappointed at something more approaching 11pm as opposed to when I wake up the next day at 6!