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back to article Tory think tank: Hey, civil servants! Work with startups to save £70bn

Articulated-truck-loads of paperwork awaiting the ministrations of a rubber stamp- or pen-wielding civil servant should soon be a thing of the past, according to Tory think tank Policy Exchange. It wants to see bureaucrats mashing up APIs with Silicon Roundabout startups instead and leaders "driv[ing] digital into the DNA of …

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by 2020 a digitally transformed government could be up to 8 per cent more effective than if it continued doing business as usual.

Only 8% gain over 7 years? Randomly shooting 1 civil servant in 10 would probably be more effective, pour encourager les autres.

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Having been a civil servant I can tell you that the problem, in general, lies with the incompetent management which goes back to Whitehall. Most civil servants earn a lot less than they could get in the private sector and in my experience most were fairly hard working, at least as hard working as those I've encountered in the private sector.

I know it's easy for the government to build up the idea that all civil servants are parasites and worse still are preventing the government from delivering the wonderful things it would love you to have...... but the reality is that the civil service is a resource managed by the government and in the end any failings really have to go back to those managing the resource.

I don't think Google or any other company would last long if their management started telling everyone how lazy its employees were and how they were the cause of all its woes and if only it could get rid of them how wonderful life would be......

The only problem with the government starting to work with the civil service rather than attacking it is that while productivity would improve the politicians would have one less thing to blame for their failures.

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Anonymous Coward

I, likewise have been a civil servant. And I hated it. Far too many of my colleagues were lazy, workshy, risk averse bureaucrats, obsessed with following existing and often inappropriate procedures rather than challenge or innovate better ones. And that was at the (in relative terms, of course) sharp end of public sector IT, putting in state of the art defence control computers. Some were much better - conscientious and dedicated, but not enough to overcome the deadweight of the dross.

As for the salary, the public sector did very well compared to private under the last government; even ignoring that, the glorious gold plated, index linked, taxpayer guaranteed final salary pension scheme was worth about 30% of salary.

You blame government. I'd agree that they are highly culpable. But the senior civil servants must take a good share of the blame for their failure to provide proper leadership and executive management. I work fairly closely with a particular government department, and they mess up everything they touch, by trying to micro-manage everything - not just targets, but actual outcomes, processes, methods, every sodding bit of detail is painfully prescribed. The conflate social and welfare objectives with the specific departmental objectives, creating a complex minefield of obligations and regulations. And that invariably causes higher costs for Joe Public and for industry.

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Interesting to have another point of view. Personally my salary doubled when I left the civil service and I'm just a systems admin kind of IT person. My salary then increased further, the further I got from the civil service!

One of the problems I found was that the whole atmosphere of the civil service is risk adverse and obsessed with following procedures because you get hit over the head if you don't. In the end you get so tired of this and the constant changes of direction that it's hard not to just give up and follow orders to the letter as a mindless slave.

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I too has been a civil servant

and some of the people were workshy or jobsworths. Most weren't but you can see how soul destroying it is when you have to do a public tender to to wipe your own arse.

I think you'll probably find that the pointless micromanagement is required by the laws of the land, and the fact that if you dont specifically say exactly what you want the businesses you are forced to contract out to will take the piss on principle.

Got a contract to build 10 computers for the council? "Here's our bill for the computer pay now." "But they are only the housing for 10 computers." "Yes it says in the contract 3 hundred K to build 10 computers not finish building 10 computers - that would be a separate contract, now which court do you want to piss your taxpayers money away in trying to fight the contract written by the lawyers* who used to work for you but now work for us cos when they spotted the 'mistake' in the contract we bought them before they could change it"

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Big Brother

"Only 8% gain over 7 years? Randomly shooting 1 civil servant in 10 would probably be more effective, pour encourager les autres."

Josip would have approved.

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Having been a junior manager in the public sector I would say that the problem is that it is virtually impossible to give any reward to anybody for doing a good job, and there is no penalty for doing a job badly other than being put on an "improvement programme", which leads to a situation where people do the absolute minimum they can do before HR gets involved. This level is depressingly low, and orders of magnitude lower than in the private sector.

There is a reason why the NHS leaves an avoidable trail of corpses in it's wake, and the reason is that it's impossible to actually fire somebody who is grossly incompetent and dangerous even when the staff know that somebody is dangerous.

Some staff have a good work ethic, especially those coming from the private sector. Others do not. The balance is (IMO) very firmly with the people who do not have a strong work ethic. I was actually informally warned to take it easy by an award winning member of staff because I was so productive that I was making everybody else look bad.

I hadn't been working particularly hard either, afterwards I redoubled my efforts, just to make a point.

The private sector is not inherently more efficient, it's just that companies as bad as the civil service lose their customers to the competition and go bust.

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Unhappy

Deja Vu all over again

So we must spend say £50 billion on technology which will be obsolete before we can agree on what the software should do.

Again.

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Doomed to fail

The problem with any Govt IT project or initiative is that they are horrendously over-managed by both the government and the provider. Remember the adage 'A camel is a horse designed by a committee', well Govt IT projects have two separate committees; one trying to decide what they actually want and one trying to provide the solution.

If you or I want something that performs the function X we go to a company and ask for their product X. We know what we want and the company has a product that fulfills that function.

When Govt attempt the same thing they ask the company for product X - not realizing that X will not perform function Y which they also need. After many committee meetings they usually insist that the company produces a new bespoke product called Z that takes years to develop and ultimately does not work.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Doomed to fail

There is of course the fact that many of these government systems are deeply embedded into one another, or rely on less than portable tech. I know of some sites which I cannot use because they rely on IE6 functionality still, and the government won't update these outdated solutions because they "still work" (probably because the person in charge of them is still stuck on IE6 in the government office)

I also find it rather comical that the governments new plan is to remove some of the beurocracy at the bottom levels. Haven't they realized that a beurocracy is like a monster? Cut off the arms and legs and they'll gradually grow back. Cut off the head and the beast dies.

If they instead worked on eliminated the beurocratic mess at the top end of the chain, it would work its way down clearing up a lot of their issues.

Bad analogy time.

Right now we have a factory leaking sewage into the ocean. The governments response is to clean up the ocean, expensive, time consuming and more to the point, fruitless. Because given enough time, the factory will leak out just as much toxic waste.

If instead they stopped the factory from spewing said waste, the toxicity of the waters would eventually level out on its own. It would be cheaper, and it would last.

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Re: Doomed to fail

It's not just the public sector that's still using IE6 though!

About 18 months ago, when I was still working for my previous employer, I became involved in the pre-contract negotiations with "a major high street bank". They were looking to buy a service from us which would have been delivered on a SaaS basis with their staff accessing the system from a browser; all of the processing was done by us and nothing would have been installed on the bank's infrastructure.

They spent several meetings grilling us on the minutiae of our implementation, particularly security, and raising "issues" about totally irrelevant points. We came to the conclusion they didn't really understand security on a web-based system.

After one particularly gruelling meeting where they'd worked us over even more than usual they concluded by asking what browsers we supported. Thinking they must be keen to have a really secure browser I was pleased to be able to list all the versions of all the major browsers that our system was compatible with only to be asked "Yes, but what about IE6?". Turns out that was the only browser that their (in-house) branch software would work with and so they couldn't use anything else.

My 34 year IT career has been split almost exactly 50/50 between public and private sectors and in my experience private sector IT has nothing to crow about. The only difference is that disasters tend to get hushed-up as much as possible to avoid "damaging the brand image".

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In the real world...

Civil servants are forced to combine requirements due to inadequate resources, a vague hope of getting economies of scale and because politicians don't understand what complexity means. This leads to a monster requirement that only a big provider can deliver and even then it still ends up being a mess.

Said big provider cannot be properly punished for poor performance because they donate to political parties and so the government will never actually give itself the commercial means to beat those companies with the ugly stick (ie. big fines). Worse, those companies are able to implement technical strangleholds on those IT systems so civil servant cannot give the next contract to someone else without having to buy a totally new system.

The procurement laws are so ridiculously complex and convoluted that civil servants are not allowed to do small and simple procurements that a normal private company can do. This means they have to go back to creating big contracts because the small companies cannot or will not do the stupid dance (it costs them ruinous amounts of money) to satisfy those procurement laws.

Break up those contracts into smaller chunks, ensure all equipment and software is compliant with common standards and properly train and then trust the civil servants to be allowed to do small scale procurements rather than the jack of all trades, master of f**k all stuff and then maybe the benefits outlined by this policy exchanged can be realised.

You can't blame the civil servants for not delivering when the same sort of idiots who know nothing about how to actually run things keep being voted in charge over and over again!

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Anonymous Coward

"to end what government wonks – if not many taxpayers – perceive as unnecessary "face-to-face interaction"."

Offering a very poor customer service for those services when face to face is required!

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Anonymous Coward

usual think tank bollocks - as bad as management 'consultants'

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The report can be summarised thusly ...

Civil Servants can save the Government money by making themselves redundant and going onto benefits

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Re: The report can be summarised thusly ...

Or getting a job in the private sector where they actually create wealth for the country instead of spending it.

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Re: The report can be summarised thusly ...

"Or getting a job in the private sector where they actually create wealth for the country instead of spending it."

In a bank, for example?

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Unhappy

Yet another giga Government IT project

What could possibly go wrong?

On the upside big bucks for con-tractors and conslutants.

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GOV.FUKU Customer Sevice?

Clearly, regardless of the technical issues which are not the concern of the cabinet, what the Government wants is an end to Customer Service. The customers being those that vote in and pay for the government.

If they really want to streamline and reduce costs how about:-

Closing down the NHS and removing all those money wasting social services along with pensions, then they can improve HMRC, preferably arm the enforcement office and just collect money.

That way they can save billions and not have to worry so much about how it is spent, after all the people don't need all of those services they just need to be told what to do.

To simplify identity everyone should have a coded chip embedded under the skin somewhere and a barcode tattooed on their forehead, then treat them like produce in a supermarket.

Which party is in has no effect on the fact that the population is only valuable when it is voting.

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Anonymous Coward

The bureaucracy

The bureaucracy does exactly what bureaucracy does; the comments of "civil servants" prove it :P

Any fool who thinks that the new way will be much cheaper than the old way is just that, a fool.

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Not gonna work if there is no incentive for actual work

Replacement IT systems may help in some areas, but not going to help at all if the actual work behind them is glacial. I one had a tree with a TPO (tree preservation order) blow down. I wrote to the council to ask what should be done (basically two options, TPO is revoked or new tree planted. I had to get something in place as I was intending to sell the property. For various reasons I asked for it to be revoked.

1 month later - they lost my application.

2 months later - they had logged my application

3 months later - they were considering my re-application

4 months later - they guy doing mine went on maternity leave and they were appointing a stand-in.

5 months later - Stand-in claimed TPOs can NEVER be changed/revoked as it 'is the law you know'. Had to read out the act of parliament which gives councils powers to alter/revoke TPOs. Stand-in now well over his head and "cannot do anything 'till original guy returns".

6 months later - original guy returns but has a huge backlog. My application goes to the bottom as it is non-urgent

9 months later - Decision made. TPO will be revoked, but will take a long time to enact. Ask for a letter to simply state their intention to present to prospective purchasers. "not a problem, it will be sent out today"

12 months later and a house sale delayed due to this single issue, after many calls and finally threats to put in a written complaint, I get a letter with a single sentence stating they intended to revoke the TPO.

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Sell the sizzle, not the sausage

ElReg readers already know that the Government Digital Service (GDS) is all sizzle, no sausage.

Never mind the lack of sausage, GDS are hard at work selling.

GOV.UK has its awards from the Design Museum and D&AD. That helps. They have the imprimatur of Tim 'Government As A Platform' O'Reilly and Martha Lane Fox, no mean salesman herself. The BBC and the Guardian think GDS are exciting and are providing free PR (http://www.dmossesq.com/2013/06/gds-pr-blitz.html). Well done ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken and ex-BBC man Tom Loosemore.

And now the Times have joined in (http://www.dmossesq.com/2013/08/toe-curling-gds-pr-blitz.html). And Policy Exchange. How did that happen?

It is inconceivable that GDS could have gained the support of Policy Exchange while Charles Moore ran it. But he handed over the reins years ago to Danny-now-Lord Finkelstein, a different kettle of fish altogether, whose gib is cut the other way and who luckily is very senior at the Times.

This is soap opera, of course, but then who buys the sizzle? Individuals. Individuals with personal preferences. Individuals not necessarily endowed with the skills or the will to examine the effectiveness of an IT department.

It's all a bit depressing but there is the occasional laugh. Like the Tweet from ex-Conservative Home editor Tim Montgomerie, hired by Danny-now-Lord Finkelstein to write SDP opinion pieces. Mr Montgomerie is a bit of a sizzle aficionado and in his opinion (https://twitter.com/TimMontgomerie/statuses/309258485252636673): "One of the outstanding successes of this Coalition is likely to be its digital strategy http://twitter.com/Policy_Exchange/status/309257138381938688".

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Coat

perhaps I've not had enough coffee....

but I was having flashes of the Captain of the Golgafrincham ship having a bath in the middle of a forest "ah, its time for another bath...."

Perhaps the civil service was in ship B, too.....?

P.

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