Towards Digital Governance in UK Local Public Services?

Towards Digital Governance in UK Local Public Services?

Ian McLoughlin (Monash University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-282-4.ch007
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In the United Kingdom, major investments have been made in e-government in order to modernize government and improve the efficiency and quality of public services. It has been claimed that these changes herald a “new era of digital governance”. The management of the vast majority of public services in the United Kingdom takes place at local and regional levels and provision at this level has a key role in “joining-up services” through greater information sharing and multi-agency working. This chapter examines these developments with reference to a study of the procurement of a software system by a city council, an experiment in multi-agency working to provide services to children, and the introduction of a regional smart card. It is argued that if such innovations are to have outcomes consistent with the claims of the digital governance thesis, then the relationship between technological and organizational change will need to be re-thought.
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On 20th November 2007 Alistair Darling the British Government’s Chancellor of the Exchequer stood up in a crowded House of Commons (the lower Chamber of the British Parliament). He reported that, as a result of a ‘substantial operational failure’, two data discs had been ‘lost’ at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) offices in the North East of England. It was claimed that a junior civil servant had sent the data to the London offices of the UK National Audit Office (NAO) via the ‘internal post’. The discs never arrived and subsequent searches by the police failed to locate them. The discs contained the government’s complete database of 25 million child benefit claimants including names and addresses of both adult claimants and every eligible child. In 7.25 million cases the lost data also included bank account details. Should the information fall into ‘the wrong hands’, Darling admitted, all those on the database – roughly half of the UK population - could be at risk of fraud and identity theft. More evidence emerged suggesting that the sending of information in this way was not an isolated practice but had become the norm in the preceding months. The political fall out was immediate. Instances of data loss by other agencies also began to emerge. At the same time, severe reservations were expressed by politicians the press and other commentators over new national policy initiatives that were dependent on the creation of large centralised databases. The episode was quickly dubbed ‘Discgate’ by the media.

Until recently information and communication technologies (ICTs) have rarely figured in discussions concerning the nature and development of public organizations (Dunleavy et al, 2006: 2-3). However, the development of the Internet and related digital technologies has profoundly changed this. Now the core operations of government are increasingly dependent upon the efficient operation of information systems and the effective functioning of associated management and organizational arrangements (Dunleavy et al, 2006: 10). Moreover, the development of technological and organizational systems is increasingly interlinked (McLoughlin et al, 2004a). ‘Discgate’ took place in the regional offices of a national government department. In what follows, we draw further upon the episode since it illustrates more generic issues concerning the relationship between technological and organizational change that can be applied to the focus of our concern here –attempts to transform the delivery of UK local public services using ICTs. When such changes and operations are not managed effectively, as the ‘Discgate’ episode illustrates, the consequences can be profound. The suggestion of this chapter is that in understanding and responding to this challenge we need to rethink the relationship between technological and organizational change. In order to do this we explore what we term the ‘three dimensions’ of ‘e-government’. This framework is then used to review some of the findings from a UK research programme conducted by the Social and Business Informatics group at Newcastle University (henceforth SBI Newcastle) of which the author was a co-founder and Director. The paper concludes with a brief comment upon claims that a new ‘era of digital governance’ may be upon us.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Infrastructures: A view of information systems as ‘resources’ which can not only be used to design solutions to specified tasks (an ‘application’) in given circumstances but also be evolved as shared, scalable and re-usable resources to support unforeseeable user requirements in response to changing circumstances such as new policy initiatives, patterns service demand or social need and care, and new service possibilities and innovations which add value for the citizen.

Sociotechnical Systems: A perspective which views social and technical dimensions as intertwined as if both sides of the same coin and where the distinction between the two is highly contingent.

Multi-Agency Working: Forms of cross-agency working and partnership involving different public service agencies that typically arise from efforts to provide more ‘joined-up’ service delivery and pose challenges in relation to issues such as information sharing and governance across organizational and professional boundaries.

Social Shaping: A perspective that views technological artefacts and systems as an outcome of socio-economic processes.

Technological Determinism: A perspective that views technology as an exogenous variable which has independent effects on non-technical phenomenon.

New Public Management (NPM): A managerial regime which has had global influence in the management of public services over the past two decades with a focus upon the breaking up of large public sector bureaucracies, the introduction of market like relationships between service providers themselves as with as with service users, and the introduction of market-based mechanisms of incentivisation and reward, in particular for public professionals.

Technology-in-Practice: A way of viewing technological phenomenon as constituted through the actions of users within communities of practice.

Digital Governance: An hypothesised alternative to NPM (see below) which sees a range of information technology driven changes giving rise to a reintegration of public agencies, a more citizen-centric approach to service delivery and the electronic mediation of interactions between citizen and state resulting in the creation of ‘virtual agencies’.

Smart Cards: A physical token that can be used to authenticate and verify the identity and right to access of e-enabled services of the holder.

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