Tom Loosemore on Digital Government at the Science and Technology Committee, 27 November 2018

Tom Loosemore was interviewed by the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee on 27 November 2018. Tom was Deputy Director at the Government Digital Service 2011-15. He has a good reputation and I wanted to hear what he had to say. I found him an articulate, expert and passionate advocate of doing digital properly. I pulled out a few notes that struck me.

He described Martha Lane Fox’s report on digital government as “deliberately a very large stone thrown in a fetid pond”.

What is digital?

“It’s as much about a way of working… the notion of working in small teams, working in multi-disciplinary teams, bringing the technology and design skills back into government to be able to deliver in the same way that Google, Amazon, AirBnB and the best startups deliver.”

“Multi-disciplinary, iterative, incremental, constant improvement, feedback loops, embracing open source as a way forward, communicating openly.”

“Ownership by civil servants of the iterative multi-disicplinary design of services, embracing policy, operations and technology”, focusing on user needs not government convenience.

“We are still in the foothills as a government of adopting internet-era styles of delivery. The humility to start by accepting that you don’t understand what citizens actually need and want and that you iterate your way humbly towards getting the policy outcome you want, rather than pretending you know what the answer is upfront. That is a fundamental change.”

Spending and spend controls

Now that GDS doesn’t have spend control, the GDS service assesment process is like having some “birdwatchers” turn up. (Implicitly toothless and irrelevant.)

“There’s a bit of carrot in the Service Standard. There’s no stick. And you need a big stick”

Treasury doesn’t really understand spending:
“You’ve got a Treasury that likes to spend capex on big projects. It’s easy. This world isn’t about capex it’s about teams. Investing in teams who continually improve and develop.”

What would Tom do if he had the power?

  • Change the way that Treasury controls spend. Move from a capex to opex model. “Fund teams to deliver outcomes that minsters want, rather than big capex spend like we’re building a motorway. We’re not building a motorway, we’re building services.”
  • Champion non-stop the work of mid-level teams across government doing great things.
  • Reinstitute IT spend control

We need horizontal government. Ministers for things like payment or personal data. Platform-based, like internet-era companies, with individual services built on top of that.

Do we just need to get better at writing specifications?

“If you think you can write the answer in a specification and get the right answer, that’s the problem. It’s about my capex to opex point. I still think far too many bits of government think they can design the service upfront in a contract. And then your big suppliers are more than happy to deliver it to you. And when it doesn’t work they’ll charge you change control fees through the nose. That was the business model – you charge for change. You pretended for certainty upfront. I think there are still to many bits of government that would like to think that we can write a specification and get the answer we want, rather than take the harder path which is to start small, iterate, based on reality, with a team and accept the fact that we don’t know the answer upfront, we’re going to iterate our way towards it.”