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Could Lego build a better public sector?

Lego dolls

A recent manifesto says Lego brick government modelled on processes at Netflix and Amazon can bring an efficiency revolution to the welfare state

The way the UK is governed should be radically overhauled and redesigned along the lines of modular ‘Lego government’ according to a new green paper.

“Lego brick government” would save £46 billion a year to the nation’s frontline services by standardizing blocks of public services. Speaking at the launch of the paper, entitled simply Better Public Services, Dr Mark Thomson of the Cambridge Judge Business School highlighted the need for a modular, accessible and digital system of government that would reconnect with its citizens and help the state overcome the challenges such as an aging welfare infrastructure, debt at 90% of GDP, rising poverty levels and Brexit.

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Thomson envisaged making modular systems, processes and software available to all departments, so they could be “consumed straight out of the cloud, like Netflix movies.” The novel comparison between entertainment internet services and the machinery of government is at the heart of the paper which likens current tinkering with siloed ministries to “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” and states that “no amount of tax and spend bailouts or austerity-rationalised cuts will ever fix the underlying and much more fundamental problems.”

Technology but not for its own sake

Looking to emulate the original vision of the welfare state’s most notable architect, William Beveridge, the report describes a 21st century welfare system built to utilise technology creatively. “Technology has often been used simply to automate inefficient old processes and current services – and to make these look better at the front end – rather than to rethink, redesign modernise and improve.”

As an example, the authors cite Amazon and the modulated “exposed” platforms that have allowed an online bookseller to become the world’s largest and most faceted company, quoting entrepreneur Zack Kanter’s assertion that rather than trying to predict the future with one rigid, overarching architecture “Amazon has evolved each of the components of its modular organisation – like Lego bricks – that others can configure locally to create flexible, more efficient and cost-effective offerings than Amazon could ever do all by itself.”

Better Public Services argues that by adopting a similar approach local councils and national bodies alike, would be able to access processes and data “just as we consume movies and online banking and retail services”, without having to orchestrate or purchase services themselves.

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Thomson, along with co-author Dr. Jerry Fishenden (former CTO of Microsoft UK and current visiting professor at the University of Surrey’s Centre for the Digital Economy) highlighted the five steps necessary to implement “Lego government”:

  1. “Distinguish everywhere between frontline and overheads: So we can see clearly where improvements can be made

 

  1. Publish everything in a digital commons: So we can identify and remove duplication of overheads and costs and move towards responsive and adaptable Lego government

 

  1. Establish a Public Value Index: So we can understand and monitor what ‘good services’ and outcomes look like from the perspective of citizens and frontline workers

 

  1. Support a major shift of public sector activity into the frontline: So we can ensure the right skills are in the right place, supporting frontline workers as they innovate and improve our services

 

  1. Look after people and services as the changes are made: So we act with compassion to all those in roles and functions no longer required, reallocating from administrative and management roles to the frontline.”

 

Can we trust a Lego inspired management system?

Can we trust a Lego inspired management system?

Out of the starting blocks

Some major impacts have already been noted. Thomson brought this approach to his local council: “they were about to spend £100,000 building a new website – as a result of our discussion that council now spends £14 a month on their website.”

Another Lego style success story the report points to is the NHS’s recruitment system which was built bottom up so users could consume a service, rather than have to access a monolithic data file. Savings have been estimated at £1 billion since 2003 and it is now the biggest single employer recruitment website in Europe. Additionally “Lego” platforms and the “digital commons” would allow secure data sharing and comparison that would benefit policy makers, government employees and third parties alike.

However, the scale of the challenge is well-proven. “I’m encouraged and depressed at the same time,” Jack Perschke, head of digital government business service at ATOS told the launch panel. “I’m encouraged because I believe digital needs to be pushed out of technology and into business reform. I’m depressed because I’m fairly sure I went to an almost identical conference ten years ago, where all the same points were made. I’m not quite sure why we’re still here.”

Further testament to ambitious nature of real change came from James Kidner, director of partnerships at Improbable and a diplomat turned technologist: “It’s the anthropology, not the technology, that will drive this.”

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