Why Government Technology Needs (Much) Better Governance

Why Government Technology Needs (Much) Better Governance

Dominic Cummings’ techno-enthusiasm is infectious — and, this year, it’s been spreading all over government.

Dominic Cummings’ techno-enthusiasm is infectious — and, this year, it’s been spreading all over government.

There doesn’t appear to be a written plan — at least not in the public domain — but there are certainly recurring themes. This is a dream of a low-friction, innovation paradise in which numbers tell the truth while bureaucrats (and ethicists) get out of the way. It is less a vision for society, more an obsession with process and power.

The risks of this approach can be seen in the handling of the A level grading and the NHSX track and trace app. Both of these projects needed better governance processes — including open and transparent ways of working, forward planning, and the acceptance of external expert guidance – but instead, both have been allowed to experience significant failure, due in part to a culture of secrecy and a lack of oversight.

The New Technocracy

The emergence of a patchwork of UK innovation initiatives over the last few months is notable. Rather than fiddling with increments of investment, there is a commitment to large-scale, world-leading innovation and enthusiasm for the potential of data.

But there is also a culture of opacity and bluster, a repeated lack of effectiveness, and a tendency to do secret deals with preferred suppliers. Taken together with the lack of a public strategy, this has led to a lot of speculation, a fair few conspiracy theories, and a great deal of concern about the social impact of collecting, keeping, and centralising data.

But it seems very possible that there is actually no big plan — conspiratorial or otherwise. In going through speeches and policy documents, I have found no vision for society —save the occasional murmur of “Levelling Up” — and plenty of evidence of a fixation with the mechanics of government.

This is a technocractic revolution, not a political one, driven by a desire to obliterate bureaucracy, centralise power, and increase improvisation.

And this obsession with process has led to a complete disregard for outcomes.

Chips with Everything

Although there is no public strategy, there is a lot of disparate news coverage of the UK government’s technical present and future. The following is not a complete survey — just an indication of a few things in flight; doubtless there are many more.

There are plans for increased data sharing across the civil service, while the creation of a British DARPA to “boost transformative research” has been approved, and the UK is now — somewhat surprisingly — co-owner of “struggling mega-constellation start-up OneWeb”.

10ds is on its way — apparently a “pseudo start-up” based in No 10, driving a “quantitative revolution … to ensure all decision making is made on the best available evidence”, and NHSX have been working with Palantir to create a “single source of truth” for the pandemic.

Many of these initiatives are underpinned by a fascination with quantitative data — which is also telegraphed across many posts on Cummings’ personal blog.

Image for post

Bell Labs, Silicon Valley in the 1940s, via Mother Jones

ethics news technology uk-politics government go

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