Governments have been around for a long time. Amazon has been around for less than thirty years. And yet we increasingly use Amazon (and other similar digital giants) as the measure by which to judge government. We expect a lot from government and are quick to complain when public services don’t arrive as quickly or efficiently as the goods we order online.
Over the past year, the efficiency of government services has been in the spotlight. Take the UK, for example. The vaccination programme has been widely accepted as having worked extremely well. The ‑test and trace system has been much more problematic. Politics enters everywhere, from the blame game to “it’s more complicated than you think”-style explanations.
An interesting perspective comes from someone who should know: Robert Colville, Director of the British Centre for Policy Studies think tank, a co-author of the last Conservative manifesto and a man who knows his way around government. In a recent article in the Times, Colville gave his view about what makes high profile government programmes succeed or fail:
“In today’s world, any policy that can be accomplished with existing databases will be vastly cheaper and easier than one that involves modifying them, building new ones or, worse still, getting two incompatible systems to interact. (Universal credit, for example, was essentially an attempt to get the tax and benefits databases to talk to each other, which is one reason it went billions of pounds over budget.)”
What makes Amazon so successful is the information it stores about us and about its products and how it links them together. Most of the time, we don’t mind and unthinkingly check the “I accept” box as we place our order. Government is, as they say, “more complex than you think”. The heated debates which led a few years ago to the abandonment of the British Government’s ID card project show that as a society we have limits to the extent to which we want to share our data, though these may be changing again with the prospect of vaccine passports around the corner. In any case, there’s no disputing that we want efficient services, based on someone somewhere knowing both the big picture and our specific needs.
This reminds me of my own time as a Government official. There was sometimes a need to refer back to documents produced years ago. You’d find a typewritten memo with lots of handwritten comments, sometimes in different colour inks. These might have been difficult to read but were invaluable. You could work out which officials had contributed as the discussion progressed and then finally the views Ministers took by reading through their, sometimes quite frank (!), comments. It was simple but reliable, because there was only one “official” copy of the memo which had made its way all the way from a junior official up to a Minister. Today, the electronic filing systems keep multiple copies of email chains which are often hard to distinguish and some of the key discussions – perhaps on WhatsApp – may be missing altogether. There’s now talk about tighter rules on politicians’ use of messaging apps, but it seems Canute-like to think that we’re going to stop Government Ministers using a technology that almost everyone has come to treat as a basic human right. So it’s going to be harder for tomorrow’s historians to piece together what really happened when and who decided what.
These two different examples illustrate the same challenge. How can we bring together all the elements required to tell a story – whether it’s about a decision taken by Ministers or about a person’s tax liability or pension entitlement – in a seamless way when they sit in different systems and where there’s a need to preserve confidentiality and security?
That’s precisely the kind of challenge Digital Cognate™ technology was designed to resolve, once and for all. Every organisation, from a complex modern government to a highly specialised business, relies on multiple systems, some of which it may own, while others belong to third parties with their own rights over the data. The systems rarely “talk” to each other, and in any case don’t want to share all their secrets. But Digital Cognate™ technology allows the owners of the different systems to agree which parts matter to their common endeavours and so which parts they’re willing to share. They can then agree to extract this data securely, confirm that it is genuine, encrypt it so confidentiality is preserved, digitally encapsulate it so that it can’t be changed and then combine it with data from other sources to reveal the big picture. And, because the data has been encapsulated immutably, you’re left with a “forever record” to resolve disputes into the future. The government, the citizen and the future historian can all find out what happened.
Robert Colville’s probably right about why vaccination has been so successful and test and trace less so. But in the future, it doesn’t have to be like that.