How Government Grapples with ICT

Last week, I went along to the Gov ICT conference – it was just down the road from our offices and free to attend, so although it’s a little outside our usual remit I thought it worth popping along for a few hours. And when it comes to ICT, the British Government seems to face many of the same ICT-related challenges as our applicants and grantees.

While knowing the ins and outs of HMRC’s (that’s Britain’s tax collector) ICT systems or the thorny issues faced by the Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) is not of paramount importance to us at Indigo, it was worth hearing about the problems they face when it comes to innovation and ICT.

One of the key problems they face is recruitment. Getting the right people with the right skills and giving them the right incentives to stay is hard. These are similar issues faced by many of our grantees working on social change, transparency and accountability. In the case of our grantees, the issues are magnified. In countries where fully qualified data scientists or web developers are scarce, why would they choose to work in sectors where pay is (probably) lower and where bureaucracy (may be) a major headache? For both government and the third sector, there is a desperate need to market themselves more effectively. In the case of government, for example, they may well be the largest data custodians around – HMRC, for example, holds 500TB of data covering tens of millions of people and companies. The third sector, meanwhile, need not be hampered by the search for profits or bureaucracy – it’s a perfect home for those who want to experiment, try new things and make a change.

A second problem is how government can ensure that the digital services it offers meet the needs and expectations of customers used to the slick offerings of multinationals and digital behemoths like Facebook and Google. It’s a problem that charities face too – how to make something that doesn’t seem out of kilter with people’s everyday interactions with ICT. In many ways, KISS (keep it simple, stupid) is the answer. Applying for a driving licence, for example, need not be a colourful, fun experience – it should be simple, quick and effective. Likewise, medicine tracking sites do not need to offer a wonderfully rich experience – they should be clear and easy to use, but they don’t need to be beautiful. After all, people often come to government sites or charity digital projects with a specific task in mind and not to have fun. Simplicity and reliability, then, are two of the key issues.

While government and civil society are sometimes (or often) at loggerheads, there is a lot they could learn from one another when it comes to ICT. Yes, they may operate at very different scales and possibly with very different goals in mind, but there are many ICT issues in common. That’s why it might have been nice to see and hear from a few more civil society colleagues at the conference – maybe that should be a goal for Gov ICT 2019.