Many happy returns?

4 Apr 14
After 25 years of the World Wide Web and 15 years of digital government, it’s important to pause for a moment and learn some lessons from the past

By John Thornton | 4 April 2014

After 25 years of the World Wide Web and 15 years of digital government, it’s important to pause for a moment and learn some lessons from the past

Smart thinkingApril2014

When a 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck Richmond, Virginia in the US, residents in New York read about the quake on Twitter 30 seconds before they experienced the quake themselves. This illustrates how the use of social media and electronic communications has made us very rapidly rethink our expectations in terms of speed and types of communication.

The World Wide Web is 25 years old this year and has probably changed the world faster than any other technology in history. When Sir Tim Berners-Lee first proposed the web in 1989 he could not have conceived of the impact that it would have on so many spheres of activity. In the early days he kept a note of every website created but gave up when he reached 20, which was just as well because the total is rapidly moving from about 600 million to a billion websites worldwide.

The web has not only revolutionised communications, but also fundamentally changed the ways that we transact business, seek information and collaborate. As the web has evolved, governments, public services and politicians have often struggled to keep pace and adapt.

In the UK, the genesis of today’s ‘digital government’ can be traced back to the late 1990s. Since then it has evolved through ‘e-government’, ‘transformational government’ and ‘Smart government’, with billions of pounds being spent by central government, the NHS and every type of public service organisation.

We live in an increasingly web-dependent world and nearly all public sector organisations, whether they recognise it or not, are primarily digital enterprises; they are entirely dependent upon digital information and technology to deliver services and to communicate with service users. For most this means that technology is no longer grafted on to the organisation to deal with specific tasks. Information is now the lifeblood of the organisation, and technology provides the arteries and blood vessels that deliver the required information.

What lessons can we draw from just over a decade and a half of e-government/ digital government? First, that it is easy to be seduced by the hype that accompanies rapid technological change, as we saw with the dotcom boom and the dotcom bomb that followed. Also, that exploiting new technologies is not easy, as we know from the many government and public sector projects that have consumed large amounts of taxpayers’ money and failed to deliver promised benefits and savings. It is tempting to conclude that ‘digital’ is a panacea for fixing all of our communications, funding and delivery problems. Clearly, it is not and sometimes, particularly where there are complex social interactions, as in social care, increased use of technology is inappropriate.

What we do know is that ‘digital’ works best when embedded in an organisation’s culture: when the organisation starts with the needs of the customer and service user, and thinks in terms of customer journeys and business processes, and technology is used to help facilitate and support improved ways of working.

While improving efficiency and innovation does not rely on technology, new technologies can spark ideas, improve existing practices and support successful implementations - ‘digital’ will in most cases be part of the solution. 

This is a fast-moving area and there is understandably a focus on the latest developments and issues. Today these might include cloud, BYOD, Big Data and cyber. But, do we always pause to learn the lessons of the past? Will we be better prepared when the web turns 30?

John Thornton is an independent adviser and writer on business transformation, financial management and innovation [email protected]

This feature was first published in the April edition of Public Finance magazine


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