Government digital service: is the feeling mutualised?

Government’s use of digital media is undergoing radical change. As digital media use has become more mainstream  and critical – first to communications, then policy-making through engagement and more recently for transactions – so too has government steadily rationalised its digital operations. That trend is now coming to a head with the establishment of the Government Digital Service, which will provide centralised services, a single domain and web platform for all government departments and [most of] their agencies to use.

That each department and agency will no longer have its own, separate domain, CMS, hosting arrangement, support contract, analytics account and maybe central web team is genuinely radical. But could the delivery of government digital services be more radical still?

Frances Maude’s speech at Civil Service Live 2011 made me think so. In that speech he floated the idea of giving public sector staff the right to form new mutuals and bid to take over the services they deliver. Could government digital services be a candidate for mutualisation? In this post I suggest that it could.

I don’t attempt to deal with the practicalities; at this stage, I am only interested in the principle. Do the government’s digital services, which are soon to become a service, qualify for mutualisation.

Nor do I say that government digital services should be spun off into a mutual; rather, at a time of opportunity while the exact scope and roadmap for GDS are being defined, I belive it warrants consideration as 1) a specific exploration of digital as service in government and 2) of the general debate about what public service mutuals are and could be.

Not knowing much about mutualisation, I have had to do some research. In that process I came across the very helpful Co-operative Business District, a guide produced by Co-operatives UK and Mutual Ventures, explaining four areas that need thorough consideration before embarking on a public sector mutual. The first of these is: what are public sector mutuals and are they for you? That ‘big idea’ is what I cover here by applying the criteria to the government digital function.

According to the guidance the UK Government intends these the ‘right to provide’ to be in scope for a very broad spectrum of services in areas such as education, health and social care but it could also extend to civil service functions. Like digital services. Perhaps. Certainly, the archetypal service values on which mutuals are based sound very much like those to which ‘gov webbies’ across departments aspire: user focus, choice, cost efficiency, flexibility, personalisation, community, creativity, continuous improvement and so forth. So the ‘mindset’ can be said to be in place.

Currently, each department’s digital team – to some extent or another –  provides account management, editorial, engagement, frontend development, analytics, standards compliance, user experience and skills training services to their department (with design, systems administration, hosting, applications management and design more often than not outsourced to commercial providers). Those services that departmental teams currently provide will be centralised into GDS and the departments will use that service in the same manner that they previously used their own in-house functions. So the business of a mutualised GDS would be to provide digital services to a customer base of government departments and agencies. In that sense the business model is already set.

Lastly, what form of mutual would a ‘mutualised GDS’ take? The conventional image of a cooperative is that it is employee-owned but they can also be consumer-owned or a mix of the two. A cooperative run by its departmental consumers might be best running as a community interest company, where the assets would be owned by the department and ‘profits’ or savings would be turned back into ‘public good’ such as community funding, innovation or research initiatives.

Regardless of whether or not it is desirable, it would seem that a mutualised GDS would fit the criteria introduced in the the Co-operative Business District. But naturally a limited exploration of this kind begets a host of questions…

  • Would a mutualised GDS perform better than demutualised GDS? The idea behind unleashing the ‘right to provide’ is that mutuals can deliver with more energy and efficiency than the Civil Service incumbents, but the GDS has yet to get underway beyond the ‘scale model’ of Alphagov and the embryonic Betagov. So it is too early to say whether it would be ‘better’ in terms of quality or in terms of ‘fit’ with policy.
  • Would it be subject to competition from the commercial sector, in the sense that it would have to go through procurment processes? Would it be competitive?
  • Is the service mix right? Rather than replicating the current service offering, would a mutual have to bring in hosting and the other services currently outsourced to make an ‘end-to-end’ offer? In fact, is the idea of one mutual wrong; instead should groups of civil servants spin off more niche, discipline-specific services?  A mutual covering user experience services; another providing analytics monitoring and evaluation.
  • Are civil servants in digital roles even interested in the concept? Do the potential providers consider themselves more civil servants than business managers?
  • Are government’s digital communications, engagement and transactional services too important to spin off?

Questions like these and on even more important issues about the desirability and feasibility of public service mutuals are being posed in the Open Public Services White Paper. The ‘listening period’ is open between now and September, so as well as sharing any thoughts with me on the digital services side, if you are interested in the how modern public services hsould be delivered be sure to contribute to the  www.openpublicservices.cabinetoffice.gov.uk.

UPDATE

On Friday around the time this post was published, the Government Digital Service also posted on its new blog at http://digital.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/. The first post contains an excellent readout of the lessons learned from the Alphagov project.

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3 thoughts on “Government digital service: is the feeling mutualised?

  1. Really interesting post Ross, I’d had the same thought/daydream when I was reading about mutualisation.

    Here we try as much as possible to pretend we are a small agile agency and to give everyone a say in how the team progresses and delivers, that would be much easier if you could avoid much of the creeping death civil service bureaucracy.

    The competition aspect is something that would concern me though. I’ve always thought we really thrive in a non-competitive atmosphere – ie there’s no reason not to share our best practice and ideas.

    Can you imagine if FCO digital and BIS digital were suddenly in financial competition with each other? Might make things a bit less rosy.

    That said if anyone was seriously considering this I’d be interested!

    Jenny

  2. Jenny

    I think your insight about ‘agency approaches’ would play out across the digital teams of most government departments. Especially these days when the commissioning routes are so chocked off, if you can’t deliver in-house then the chances are the ‘project’ isn’t going to happen.

    I agree that we have learned a lot from working with and observing the private sector and our direct suppliers, particularly the SMEs.

    Most of it is good learning, which is readily applicable. In some cases, we’ve had to retool their proccesses for our ends – I’m thinking analytics where we have been more interested in ‘engagements’ than ‘sales’ or in moderation where our interests are more deliberative than supportive.

    And, you are absolutely right that between departments there is alreasy a collaborative community of practice, exchanging ideas, documentation and setting up learning environments such as the Heads of Digital Engagement network, which was grassroots run at first.

    But in a sense there is also competition. It’s based on credentials rather than finacials and it is very, very healthy. Who can do more on less? Who can get the most traffic with the least cost? Who can sustain a series of webchats the outputs of which are considered valuable by the responsible policy desk? We’re not in a race, it’s not me vs you but it is a challenge.

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