Andy Richardson joined London-based Public as its chief technology officer (CTO) in 2017. “We started out wanting to change things,” he told McKinsey’s Radhika Chadwick in a recent conversation. “We wanted to change how technology was used in the public sector. We wanted to make government better users of technology. And we wanted technology companies to focus on government and help improve people’s lives.”
The firm started out as a venture capital company but soon transformed to convening conversations between governments and technology, hosting events such as the GovTech and Defence Disrupted summits and running accelerator programs for start-ups. “We went from advising and investing money to actually making sure the conversation happened,” Richardson said.
Along the way, government leaders would often come to Public and ask not only what to do but also how it could be done. In response, the company has “now started to do larger transformation work,” Richardson said.
In 2020, Public acquired a software business, Eva Health Technologies, which is one of four that manages medical-record systems in the United Kingdom. “We wanted to put our money where our mouth was,” Richardson said, “and build something.” Public is in the process of rebuilding Eva from the ground up and turning it into the United Kingdom’s first digital medical-records business that is cloud-first and public-internet focused.
“Everything we do is getting more and more hands-on,” said Richardson, an avid coder who still codes every day, as he has for more than two decades.
Richardson spoke about the difficulties and opportunities of digital government and why the potential for impact is so enormous. The following is an edited version of his remarks.
‘The opportunity for digital government is huge’
Government is one of the largest touchpoints in terms of the number of people that interact with a service or organization. The impact here is huge.
The ideal digital government is data driven. It’s accountable. It’s transparent. It brings the citizen into the reasons that decisions have been made. A brilliant digital government can really engage with its citizens.
Digitization of government has been important for quite a while; it’s certainly been imperative for the past five to ten years. The Government Digital Service here in the UK published a report in 2012 on the future of digital government.1 It was the first time that people tried to quantify its benefit. They came up with a wonderful figure, which I checked earlier today, so I know this is right. They said that digitizing government in the UK could save taxpayers between £1.7 billion and £1.8 billion a year. For 2013, that was seen as, “Wow, this is amazing, look at the possibilities of digitizing government!” Now we’d look at that figure and say, “Whoa, you need to add at least a zero to that.”
Why now? Because we can’t stop. Because the majority of the developed world is digital. It’s online, and it’s 24/7. Government should be no different and should embrace all of that.
‘Digitization is difficult because people are difficult’
Digitization is difficult—not just in the public sector, but anywhere—because digitization is fundamentally about people rather than data, and people are difficult. Ones and zeroes and data and computers, on the other hand, I find quite easy to manage, understand, navigate, and negotiate with.
Digitization is difficult—not just in the public sector, but anywhere—because digitization is fundamentally about people rather than data, and people are difficult.
But people are slightly more unpredictable. The reason it’s particularly difficult in public services is that often the roles people have traditionally done are perhaps at odds with the scale of change that digitization can bring.
The first wave of digitization in a government department is often about grabbing data and creating digital versions of analog processes. And that doesn’t really affect people so much. It’s seen as an efficiency drive.
But then, what does that data uncover? People might have thought that their latest campaign was wonderful or that their citizen outreach is amazing. And if the data show otherwise, that’s not difficult for a computer to accept, but it’s very difficult for a person to accept—who often thinks they are doing a wonderful job.
Now, if you go further on your digital journey and start offering new ways of doing things, then old structures and roles and people’s duties will change. The civil service in the UK, for example, has become a lot more digital, modern, and dynamic over the past few years.
If you have the rise of a chief digital officer or chief information officer, that can be quite challenging for an organization set up to be people-focused and also set up to be about cascading decisions downward. If the data are pushing upward, that can make certain roles more difficult and more challenging.
Often the people who create policy—the ultimate top-level leaders of government and society—they’re usually not the people responsible for driving through digital change. So we have a break there between the accountability and responsibility of different parties and departments.
‘Government digitization is already here, but it’s very unevenly distributed’
There’s a great quote from sci-fi writer William Gibson, who said, “The future’s already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.” The same is true of government digitization. So, where is it? You’d have to go department by department, I think.
I love departments like HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC). It was the first to do an awful lot of digitization because it deals in ones and zeroes and figures and form filling for a lot of its work. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), on the other hand, has to take water samples from rivers and work out the provenance of an animal that’s gone to auction. Those are very, very analog processes from areas of society that may not typically embrace digital solutions. Some departments now have digital processes to replace analog ones. You can buy your road tax online, but you can also do so at the post office.
I would love to see government make more data-driven decisions. And that is really difficult because government, by its very nature, makes political decisions. It makes decisions that it feels are in the best interests of its citizenry. But it also makes decisions that in some respects maintain the status quo. So I would love to see government say, right, we’ve taken this decision and it’s based on this data or the outcomes of this analysis and this data, and I’d like them to go further.
I’d like them to share that data with the population. There’s a great opportunity to start reaffirming trust between citizens and government, for the government to say, “This is what we’re doing.” And don’t focus everything on cost savings, but say, “Look, we want to understand what we do for you better, and we want you to be brought into the decisions we’re making. We want you to understand why we made those decisions and on what basis and on what data.”
‘Everyone should have a security mindset’
Cybersecurity is this wonderful, amorphous term that conjures up images of The Matrix and robots gone crazy. It’s a hard concept to get people’s heads around because it sounds too futuristic. But things in cyber are generally really, really boring. We’re talking about endpoint security and making sure that people’s iPhones are on the latest software update. We’re talking about having a strong password.
Cybersecurity is this wonderful, amorphous term that conjures up images of The Matrix and robots gone crazy. It’s a hard concept to get people’s heads around because it sounds too futuristic.
We need first to define this term and make people comfortable with it. We need to upskill public servants to understand the vast estate of cyber and what it means from one end of the spectrum to the other. This has to be a holistic approach between policy and public servants, and then security vendors and technology providers.
A story I like about developing a security mindset is about an ant farm; it’s by Bruce Schneier.2 In America, you can buy an ant farm in a toy shop. It’s just two sheets of glass, and then you fill it with soil and live ants. You can see them all running around. But there are no ants or soil in the box, because the ants would be dead when you bought it, and you can’t ship soil around the US. So what happens is that there’s a phone number in the box that says, “If you’ve got your ant farm and you filled it with soil, ring this number, and we’ll send you your live ants, and you can get it going.”
That seems very sensible. But to a security researcher or hacker, someone with a security mindset, what they see is, “Hang on, there’s a phone number in the US that I can just ring up, unauthenticated, and have live ants delivered to any address in the US?” That’s a potential security threat. And so, everyone needs to understand that every system is potentially open to abuse.
‘You can’t improve what you don’t measure’
The real change of digitization centers on the organization, its structures, people, and ways of doing things. If you’re going to begin a digital journey, realize it’s a long, multistage road. The best place to begin is measurement. You can’t improve what you don’t measure. Understand the boundaries of your estate and who are the people you interact with, not only in terms of citizenry but also in terms of providers. What’s your data estate and footprint? And what are your responsibilities there? It’s a process of self-discovery for departments to go through and understand the fence around what they’re doing and which bits need what kind of digitization.
Then go on that virtuous cycle: measure and improve; measure and improve. At some point, you’ll be thinking about new business processes and new ways of doing things, rather than just improving what you have.