Reconfiguring the state

It’s not about bigger government or smaller government, but how best to organise it for the internet era

Hi, it's Chris from the Tony Blair Institute. In this edition we’re sharing some thoughts on how government itself needs to change to deliver for citizens in the 21st century.

One side-effect of the consumer tech revolution has been a shift in people’s expectations for digital public services. In a world where technology is widely used and continuously improving, one of the big risks for society is that our interactions with the state feel stuck in the past.

This is not to say that governments should aim to be on the bleeding edge of new technologies – being a fast follower is likely plenty good enough. But they must recognise that when you are focused on user needs the work is never done, and while they might operate under different constraints to private companies this does not grant a free pass when it comes to radical reform.

There have, of course, been some great strides on digital government over the past decade, and our shared experience through the pandemic has accelerated some long-overdue shifts.

So, what comes next?

Reconfiguring the state

Our latest policy paper considers the challenges facing leaders as they seek to reconfigure government for the internet era:

Today’s model of government is insulated from change. State silos block wholesale reform and top-down hierarchies can no longer deliver in an era of overwhelming complexity. Progress relies on those in power overcoming immense inertia to help small bits of the system catch up, instead of the underlying conditions encouraging continuous improvement.

The costs of this are stark. Structural inequalities go unaddressed, public services fail to deliver the best possible outcomes for citizens, and scarce resource is wasted instead of being used to support those most in need. But proper implementation of technology should break the constraints inherent to this industrial model of government.

In practice, governments must shift from delivering what they always have to ensuring people’s needs are met in the best possible way.

Making this shift requires leaders to confront a new set of trade-offs for government in the 21st century: opening up delivery without abandoning the most vulnerable, accessing tech-enabled scale economies without eliminating local freedoms, and meaningfully engaging the public without endangering representative democracy.

Resolving these trade-offs and reconfiguring the state to deliver better outcomes for citizens is the central task for governments over the coming decade.

It won’t be easy, but we have some ideas about where to get started.

Read the full paper

Tony Blair on government post-Covid

Tony was at the GovTech Summit yesterday, where he spoke with Hanna Johnson about reconfiguring government to better deliver for citizens in a post-Covid world.

HJ: You've put out a paper that looks very firmly at the future, how to take advantage of technology and how to reorganise government in order to do so. And fundamentally, you talk about a shift from being quite system centric to government being much more user centric.

TB: So my point is very simple – you've got this revolution that's happening. But the change makers and the policymakers aren’t in the right debate together. This is why my constant theme to politicians today is the only way you're going to revive optimism about the future is showing that you understand this revolution, can master it and harness it. If you show that, then there's actually an optimistic future. Because there's a whole lot of things we can do far better. But it will have big displacement effects. It is going to mean big changes. And you've got to have a government that is reengineered. To help people through that.

The conversation spanned a wide range of topics, from Test & Trace and digital identity, through to the magnitude of reform required in government and what it will take from our leaders to make it happen.

Read the full interview

Go deeper on digital government

Reforming government is a marathon, not a sprint. Here are ten perspectives on technology, government and public sector innovation that are worth your time:

  1. DirectGov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution
    Martha Lane Fox

  2. How Britain found its technological groove
    Simon Clark

  3. Real digital modernisation: a once-in-a-generation opportunity
    Mark Thompson

  4. A working definition of Government as a Platform
    Richard Pope

  5. Service design: creating a relational state
    Sarah Drummond

  6. I should have renamed “assisted digital”
    Tom Loosemore

  7. Social innovation in Taiwan
    Audrey Tang

  8. AI deserts
    Jennifer Pahlka 

  9. The next big industry to face digital disruption will be our nations
    Kaspar Korjus

  10. Transforming government for the 21st century
    Tony Blair Institute

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