Is the British civil service ‘gifted amateur’ finally giving way to the digitally-competent?

Whitehall has its issues, but its work remains central to the kind of high quality of life we expect in the UK – as, ‘It’s really easy to make money in Silicon Valley. It’s really hard to detect Daesh propaganda on the Internet.’

Posted 13 June 2018 by Gary Flood

Sometimes, UK government suffers from “an absolute lack of connection” between staff, politicians and the public – but many of its internal leaders are aware of the problem, and a grass-roots initiative centred on better use of tech to join processes up better may well change the whole picture.

The quote is from one of the very people leading the charge to change the situation – Kit Collingwood-Richardson, whose ‘day job’ (demanding enough!) is as Deputy Director for the data side of the Universal Credit credit at DWP, but who is also one of the main drivers behind the ‘OneTeamGov‘ (One Team Government) community.

Collingwood-Richardson started the movement because of what she and colleagues perceive as too big a disconnect between policymakers and service users – as well as their colleagues with different roles in the civil service (known as “professions” in Whitehall).

The need for change was also very well articulated by one of her colleagues in central government technology leadership, Oliver Lewis, Deputy Director of Learning and Development Digital Data and Technology Profession at GDS.

Lewis called for “fresh perspective” on the way we think about government in the digital age, pointing out that the UK public sector’s annual budget in pound terms is about £720bn for 65 million – on par with some of the very large capitalisations of the major Silicon Valley Internet companies.

“We are at last seeing the death of the ‘gifted amateur’ in the British civil service,” he stated – a positive, as professions can now become multi-skilled.

But a core element of the skillset of today’s mandarin simply has to be digital awareness, he demands – noting that “it’s not enough to be able to talk eloquently about the ethical problems of AI” if “you also have no idea how the Internet works”. Lewis also cautions that tech education is needed to restrain over-enthusiastic adoption of the latest buzzwords by managers for the sake of it: “You probably don’t have an ‘AI problem’ – you more probably have an Excel or a hardware one.”

But evidence is there of positive change, he also said, comparing agile development team approaches with the stripped down, results-focused philosophy behind Britain’s very effective Special Forces units, for example.

And at the end of the day, what the civil service is called on to do remains infinitely worthwhile from the public’s point of view: “It’s really easy to make money in Silicon Valley. It’s really hard to detect Daesh propaganda on the Internet.”

Collingwood-Richardson says the way to make the civil service as effective as possible and end the disconnects that lead to inefficiency is to encourage a positive and even radical positivism:

“You can’t be a pessimist if you want to effect change in the British public sector; so if you’re tired of waiting for the revolution, start it yourself!”

Both senior central government ICT figures were speaking at last week’s successful Think Smarter Working For Public Sector 2018 event in Westminster to an audience mainly composed of public sector tech professionals – and we wish them all the luck in the world for their reform efforts.