Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Why can’t government IT systems be more like supermarkets?

Despite the rapid diffusion of ICTs and the internet generally and the increasing
use of networked systems in the public sector known as eGovernment, the failure of some of these systems continues to dominate the news in the sector. Last year in the UK, the British government axed a new e-borders system, with a cost to the taxpayer of £224m. But that was small change compared to the abandoned National Health Service (NHS) patients’ record system, which in 2013 lost nearly £10 billion.
The UK government’s current IT-based benefit flagship, Universal Credit, has been beset with enough problems to keep those of us who keep a critical eye on these things tutting into our coffee for years to come and although not all the problems there are IT-related, the other problems identified by the National Audit Office (2014), including poor management and a ‘bunker mentality’, have meant that the whole project has had to be ‘reset’, which means the design and implementation of the IT system has been significantly overhauled – and you can imagine the bill for that.
So is the failure of these ambitious projects inevitable? Some studies show that the rate of total or partial failure of eGovernment systems in some economies is as high as 85% (Heeks, 2006). These failures are costly in the obvious economic sense but equally costly in terms of citizen’s trust in their governments’ ability to implement the kinds of systems that the private sector seems to have no problem with (‘if supermarkets can do it, why can’t the NHS?’ etc etc).
So what’s the problem? Why are eGovernment projects abandoned with eye-popping write-off costs with such regularity? And does anything actually go well, despite the headlines? The answer to that is of course, but success rarely makes good news copy. There are many examples of eGovernment systems in place that offer a number of benefits for citizens and governments alike. Simple examples such as the ability to apply for licences and permits or pay taxes and fees online in general work well and save citizens and agencies time and money. Efficiency gains such as removing the need to attend government offices during office hours means that citizens can navigate some forms of bureaucracy more conveniently and, in some cases, removing human interaction can even reduce mid and low-level corruption.
One could argue that these transaction-based systems compare well to private sector systems such as online shops and financial services which enjoy relatively high acceptance (take-up) rates amongst consumers; some studies show that between 50-66% of people with access to the web use it for some kind of financial transaction (Horrigan, 2008, Ofcom, 2011), with electronic cash transfers in some countries enjoying parallel success: For example, 65% of households in Kenya use a mobile phone-based cash transfer system (Jack and Suri, 2011), a pattern that is seeing similar success in other sub-Saharan countries.
But the problems occur with systems that are designed to process and manage a more complex range of variables, systems which often have to retrieve this data from existing ‘legacy’ (old) systems and which, by their very nature, require new ways of thinking about and working with this data. Business processes that worked fine on a range of unconnected electronic and paper-based systems may need to be re-engineered to fit the new world and this then becomes a project that is as much about people as it is about technology. Re-engineering these systems often means navigating complex and ever-changing hierarchies and stakeholder groups. Add to that the political drivers to outsource the work and push for an urgent roll out and you can see the iceberg ahead.
Technology is only a part of a ‘complex adaptive system’ that includes people, processes, politics and all the usual complexities of organised human life and understanding that seems to be the key to understanding eGovernment ‘success’. Only the very na├»ve (or pathologically optimistic neo-liberal) would suggest that government IT systems are comparable to supermarkets but I can’t help wondering why, when there is so much research in this area now, governments continue to make the same mistakes. The National Audit Office (2014) notes that the ‘reset’ Universal Credit project will be rolled out with a less ambitious timetable, with stable leadership, with more control of suppliers and with an incremental ‘test and learn’ approach to the process. I do wonder though if political ambition might thwart this promise. I will be watching with interest, coffee in hand.


Heeks, R, (2006) Implementing and Managing eGovernment: an International Text, London, Sage.
Horrigan, J, (2008) ‘Online shopping, Pew Internet and American Life Project Report’, available http://www.goldminenetwork.com/_did_you_know_online_shopping.pdf,  accessed 1st September 2015.
Jack, W and Suir, T (2011) ‘Mobile money: The economics of M-PESA’, NBER working paper No. 16721, available http://www.nber.org/papers/w16721, accessed 9th April 2015.
NAO, (2014) ‘Universal credit: progress update’, available at http://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Universal-Credit-progress-update.pdf, accessed 1st September 2015.
Ofcom (2011) ‘Internet use and attitudes’, http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/research/media-literacy/media-lit11/internet_use _2011.pdf, accessed 1st September 2015.


Jane Lund teaches on the online Masters programmes in Public Policy and Management in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York. She has a keen interest in eGovernment and eLearning. 

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

From tiger to doormat: An opinion piece on the (fatal?) crisis of social democracy

Surveying the landscape of social democratic parties in Europe is no task for the
fainthearted, given the extent of gloom that awaits any observer: In the UK, the election of a new Labour leader, initially a contest in Tory mimicry, has turned
into an exercise that seems to deeply divide the party, notably between its parliamentarians and grassroots; some German social democrats think about whether they actually should bother presenting a candidate for the Chancellery in 2017 since the Conservative chancellor Merkel appears to be doing such a great job and given that the social democrats stand no chance of winning a majority without an alliance with the more radical left (an alliance they are strictly opposed to); whereas the electoral hopes of the French centre-left appear to rest on the idea that the spectre of the extreme right and the particularities of the electoral system with its two rounds of voting may save their skin in the next presidential election. The situation in other countries seems hardly more encouraging, so that it is not surprising if one asks what has gone wrong since the end of the 1990s, when the centre-left, draped in the cloth of a new ‘Third Way’, dominated European politics and beyond.

The reasons for this malaise are multiple, engrained deeply in national
particularities, but I would argue that there are at least three cross-cutting problems that affect, admittedly to different degrees, all social democratic parties and the notion of social democracy itself.

First, social democracy suffers from a “loss of historical future [that represents] the main source of a political paralysis in the present” (Cunningham,2015, 31). In a period when humanity faces a range of immense challenges, from climate change and democratic disaffection to rising social inequalities and volatile economic conditions, it seems that social democratic forces restrict themselves to the stripped back promise of doing things a bit more socially just than their conservative counterparts. While for example the radical left attempts to reconcile social and environmental imperatives in the concept of eco-socialism, whereas conservative and liberal parties pursue a programme that profoundly alters the relationship between citizens and states, there is no meaningful contribution to these debates from the side of social democratic parties, which appear devoid of any overarching ideas as to what the future should look like, and which seem to believe that focus-group tested micro parcels of policies are sufficient to gather long-term and strong support. Moreover, this unwillingness to ‘think the future’ often goes hand in hand with an acceptance of the key ideological assumptions of their political opponents on the right, which contributes to the ideational hegemony of mind-sets that run counter to the ideals of a society based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Secondly, social democracy (and the left in general) has lost the source of its power, the support from a coalition of working class and lower middle-class voters linked to an array of diverse progressive forces from all levels of society. It was this base and the strong collaboration with the trade union movement, boosted by the wide attraction of collectivist ideals, that helped to turn the three decades after the end of the Second World War into a truly social democratic moment. Since the 1980s, this support has been eroding due to two interconnected trends: On the one hand, increased levels of individualisation or even atomisation combined with profound socio-economic changes have undermined the collaborative model of post-war welfare capitalism; on the other hand social democratic parties have begun to aim more and more for the infamous ‘centre-ground’ while abandoning any serious attempts to engage with and mobilise voters from lower income strata – which contributed to ever rising levels of abstention and political disengagement from large segments of society that used to be a solid support base. To make matters worse, not many social democratic leaders seem to understand that voting is different from retail and that the involvement, mobilisation and binding of voters and supporters requires more than a friendly knock on the door or some advertisement campaigns every four or five years.

Finally, the wider institutional setting within which national policy-making occurs is no longer as amenable to social democratic principles as it was in the past. Put simply, social democracy assumes that there is a shared interest of all social classes and groups to create a stable, prosperous society, and that a form of consensus can be negotiated within the confines of a nation-state. The globalisation of the world economy and particularly its immense financialisation, combined with the dominance of competition (between states, organisations and individuals) as guiding principle of societies, have altered the parameters of political conflict. The difficulty of acknowledging this problem contributes to the intellectual vacuity of the social democratic mainstream and to the toothless approach in addressing the social conflicts of our times, at least in those instances when some form of opposition is still expressed – which is not always the case, as for example the support of most social democratic parties for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership demonstrates.

One could now say, why should we care? I would argue one should for two reasons: First, with social democratic parties as the traditionally strongest element of the left, the crisis of the former inevitably represents a crisis of the latter, not just from an electoral point of view but also regarding the legitimacy of left-wing policies. If people see social democratic parties fail repeatedly to improve living standards, it is likely that doubts regarding all forms of progressive, solidaristic policies spread. Secondly, even though the European welfare state of the post-war era, with its universal public services, was not only built by the social democratic movement but also by conservative and liberal parties, it was undoubtedly the influence and power of social democratic principles (strengthened by a good dose of fear of the communist bloc) that drove this extension of social rights. It is to be feared that with a social democracy in tatters and alternative forces of the left yet underdeveloped, the near future will be less comfortable for most of us, regardless of one’s political persuasion.

Enrico Reuter