What can public sector IT learn from start-ups?

7 Jan
Public sector IT has been a notorious feature on the pages of Private Eye for many years with projects seemingly assigned to those large consultancies and outsourcers capable of completing the labyrinthine RFP documents rather than those capable of doing the work. The old joke was that projects were awarded based on the “thud test” where proposals were printed out and dropped from waist height with whoever’s made the loudest thud winning the lucrative business.
Martha Lane-Fox’s report about the future of UK digital government plus the repercussions of the very public collapse of the Obama sponsored healthcare exchange website in the U.S. showed policy makers the need for a fundamental change. Both of these events led to the race to bring a start-up mentality and faster, leaner ways of working into the public sector. They also opened procurement to the people capable of doing the work differently.
In the UK this resulted in the creation of GDS and its approach to Government as a platform. While there are different opinions about the financial impact of GDS it has been very influential culturally.
GDS has shown that the ways of working associated with start-ups can work within the monolithic structures of the public sector. This is not due to Agile or Lean or any other now almost dogmatic code of working or project management omertà. It is because, for the first time, the person at the “receiving end” of public services was recognised. Instead of “organisation-out” ways of developing endless requirements, GDS rooted their work in a “people-in” method of customer discovery.
This is the true lesson that public sector IT can learn from start ups: it is not about “user as victim” of bloated, unyielding systems but people with “Jobs to Be Done”. Public sector IT must respect people with needs who are part of an “Expectation Economy” and will judge experiences by comparing them to the latest mobile apps or social platform not the terrible previous iteration of a local government form.
The true start-up mentality respects the “end-user“(shudder) as a real person with functional, social and emotional jobs. It is based on judging success with small, quick experiments using analytic proof rather than big crash and burn launches with wash-up blame sessions. This mentality means introducing flexibility and the ability of systems to evolve as technology and people’s expectations change – often rapidly. Ultimately it is about putting people at the heart of IT, whether they are a mum looking to update her Tax disc or a doctor trying to update your medical records.
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