posted 1 Jun 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 9
Unlocking government knowledge
KM in the public sector
The public sector is usually perceived to be lagging behind in the implementation of knowledge management, but the UK government has made a promising start. Anna Vacher describes the government’s programme so far, and assesses its chances of continued success.
By utilising knowledge management, the government can unlock it’s biggest asset – the know-how of its staff. The government has made an encouraging start in its KM campaign. But it still has to overcome many obstacles in order to achieve Tony Blair’s objective of delivering an integrated government system.
Tony Blair has said he wants to see a more “joined-up government”. But is there much chance of this when individual ministries, agencies and even local government departments act as self-governing fiefdoms, jealously guarding their own turf? Examine any disaster, such as an outbreak of disease or a train disaster, and buried somewhere among the causes will have been a failure to share information between different government agencies, central or local.
But while such disasters spotlight the fractured nature of Britain’s government, they are not the only reason why administrators need to work harder at sharing information. There are new pressures on public services, not least of these is the public’s demand for higher quality services. Which means that both central and local government needs to raise its game.
Conditioned to expect ‘customer care’ and ‘seamless service’ by leading-edge companies, consumers now want public services to offer similar standards. They demand easy access to information and they want queries answered speedily. They don’t want to be bounced from one department to another in their search for information; government should present a single point of enquiry without the need for customers to ‘track down’ the relevant service. And quite right, too.
Rising public expectations, along with other factors, have triggered something of an information revolution in Whitehall, a revolution that is spreading to public sector agencies at local levels. Both ministers and senior civil servants have recognised a key imperative – that government cannot deliver high-quality seamless services unless individual departments capture and share their knowledge widely and efficiently.
Just making this leap of perception has been something of a Damascene experience for those with a lifetime working at the heart of government. Traditionally, government has treasured the ‘need to know’ principle. Generally, if you weren’t directly involved in formulating a policy or administering it, you didn’t need to know, and in many cases staff didn’t want to know anything that existed outside their service area. This also applied if you were working in another ministry, or even in the office next door.
So ministries and local government services alike effectively became great information silos, each guarding their own valued stock of knowledge against incursions by outsiders; knowledge was power and exclusive access to their own supply sharpened their negotiating edge in inter-departmental policy battles. It was a peculiarly destructive and enervating way to run government, and plainly unsustainable for government in the electronic age. Government had to change, and the Modernising Government Agenda was created to act as the catalyst to spur that change. There are now signs that it has been successful, and that two key factors have triggered this change.
The first is the near vertical growth in electronic communications, principally the internet. With more than a quarter of the population having home-based access to the internet – and more through offices, schools and libraries – a potent new communication channel has opened offering 24/ 7 access to services and information.
Blair has said that he wants to see all government services to the consumer or business available over the internet by 2005. The Office of the e-Envoy has been established to provide the central push needed, if there’s to be any chance of hitting the target and co-ordinating the many disparate bodies involved in putting government online.
The second factor is the realisation by ministers and senior civil servants that they need to develop a proactive policy of knowledge management if they are to break down departmental information silos in the interest of creating an integrated government. The government’s knowledge management strategy has received less attention than the e-Gov work, but it is an essential precondition if online government is ever to work.
A key development is the Knowledge Network, a £10m project, which went live in October 2000. The network is a government-wide, 24-hour electronic communications tool, which aims to promote collaborative working within and between departments. The network seems to have hit a chord among civil servants. It received 150,000 visits to its closed website in the first week and 250,000 in the first three weeks.
The Knowledge Network was launched with three pilot applications. An online research facility with detailed briefings, a ‘facts and figures online’ service, designed to provide statistics broken down to regional and local areas, and a knowledge network community aimed at delivering online resources and a support element.
According to a Cabinet Office briefing paper: “The Knowledge Network aims to provide the most effective and rapid means of sharing information to support government work by making information available electronically all across government.” It will “help eliminate unnecessary duplication of work by giving common material for different government departments to work with”.
Ultimately, says the Cabinet Office, “the Knowledge Network will allow officials across government to work collaboratively, to share information and to communicate with each other across departments as easily as they can work together within their own individual departments”.
But it will need more than a communications network to achieve these ambitious objectives. There will also have to be something of a seismic shift in culture to persuade different departments to share information more readily. It is the shift in culture that is widely accepted to be the key to the success or failure of any knowledge management initiative. Creating a collaborative knowledge base will require a reversal of attitudes where most departments have seemed to reward hoarding. Sir Humphrey’s days must be numbered if knowledge management is to work.
However, there are signs that at least some politicians and senior civil servants recognise this.
A key factor in the Knowledge Network’s development is the growing emphasis on what the Cabinet Office calls “crosscutting issues” between departments. The Knowledge Network’s development team has been working with individual departments to make their own briefing systems compatible with the network. This is a key step in the move from the existing structure of efficient islands and pre-defined communication points to a holistic shared knowledge culture.
When they are ready, departmental briefing systems will be linked to the network and be available across government, essentially letting civil servants find out what individual ministries are doing at a policy level. Only a couple of years ago, the more reactionary Sir Humphrey-types would have choked on their tea and biscuits at this. And the Cabinet Office’s intention to make the information available to the public in due course would have induced a seizure.
One key factor for knowledge management to succeed in any organisation is to find a way to capture the ‘tacit knowledge’ that exists in people’s heads as well as that which is written down on paper. Forward thinking organisations realise their most valuable knowledge asset leaves the building at the end of the working day. Encouragingly, the Knowledge Network project is tackling this issue as well.
It is developing applications to allow civil servants in different locations to share their knowledge electronically. Ultimately, geographically dispersed ‘communities of interest’ will also be able to draft documents and hold discussion sessions simultaneously online. That creates an environment where ideas are shared and recorded and the stock of useable knowledge grows.
But the Knowledge Network couldn’t happen without another underlying development – the Government Secure Internet (GSI). This links 90,000 users with e-mail access, and 50,000 users with browser access across 65 government departments and agencies. It’s stated aim is to provide “infrastructure services which support more joined-up working between departments, agencies and the wider public sector”.
GSI is already helping professionals share knowledge across departments in areas such as social research and library services. And it facilitates working by cross-government teams involved in corporate management or policy initiatives. It’s a tool that has considerable implications for developing knowledge management in the government service.
But while it is based on internet and networking technologies, its important long-term impact is likely to be cultural. The Centre for Management and Policy Studies, established to push the Modernising Government programme, points out that the GSI is more about “people, their behaviour and getting added value” than the technology itself. It is that value-adding benefit that is so important. It is the key to breaking down the barriers, which have traditionally made officials in one department reluctant to share knowledge with colleagues in another.
But the GSI’s focus is on sharing knowledge only within the government service. Members of the public don’t have access to it. However, another significant initiative – the UKonline portal project – is setting out to transform the way people can both get information about public services and interact with government electronically through a single contact point.
Significantly, UKonline seeks to package information from different departments and present it to users in ways that are most easy to use. Until now, obtaining information about almost anything from government often involved trekking – on the phone if not in person – from one department to the next. Nobody seemed to have the whole story.
While teething problems continue to be ironed out, the conceptual leap that UKonline has made is to package information in ways the public actually want to use it. Thus the underlying principle and structure of the website is that information is organised around so called “life events”.
There are currently six life events on UKonline – having a baby, moving home, dealing with crime, learning to drive, going away on holiday/business and death and bereavement – and more are planned. The site delivers all the information about each life event into one place, irrespective of which department it originated from. So no more tracking from one official to another in the search for information, or to report the same information over again.
Aside from the knowledge management aspects of this, there is a considerable financial return for government departments if – and it could be a bigger ‘if’ than departments realise – the public can be persuaded to use sites such as UKonline. It is much cheaper when a citizen downloads information from a website than asks for a leaflet to be mailed or takes up a civil servant’s time with a telephone enquiry or letter.
The Cabinet Office estimates that potential savings from migrating information enquiries across government to electronic channels could be as much as £5bn annually. If it is also possible, and it should be pursued, to integrate back-office fulfilment and information processing routines – capturing data posted electronically by citizens – the savings could rise as high as £13.5bn. But that’s a long way off. Many programmes are still in experimental stages, and some, such as filing self-assessment tax returns online, have been very publicly plagued with problems.
One big prize, for both local and central government and the citizens who use it, would be to answer more queries first time. The return for government is a huge reduction in costs, as questions are no longer passed from one desk in one department to another in search of an answer. Not only will the cost of a typical transaction by letter or phone be dramatically reduced as internet enquiries increase, but ‘experts’ will be freed from an abundance of routine enquiries to concentrate on delivering services and providing help to those in need. In addition, the citizen benefits from quicker answers, less hassle and a more responsive service.
Led by the Cabinet Office a pilot of this service, the Government General Practitioner project, is being trialled with Consignia, better known as the Post Office, the aim being to provide a one-stop shop where people can have all questions about public services answered, whether the source of the information is a central department or the local council.
Consignia is vital in this because 90 per cent of the population lives within half a mile of a post office. Early indications are that around four out of every five queries can, in fact, be answered at the first point of contact. But conducting a limited trial and rolling out a system like this on a nationwide basis are challenges on very different scales.
The government and local authorities have first got to learn to share knowledge more effectively among themselves if they are to succeed in delivering this kind of seamless customer service to members of the public. Mechanisms need to be put in place that support this sharing environment and to identify ownership for the dynamic update of information sources. While there has been an encouraging start, the government has fired no more than the early shots in a long campaign.
What is vitally important in any knowledge management project, whether it’s in the public or private sector, is to lay down solid foundations. It is essential that everybody involved with a knowledge management project is clear on the strategy and objectives and understands that both technical and cultural factors will contribute to ultimate success. That’s especially important in the public sector, which needs massive culture change if it’s to deliver on big league knowledge management. Most importantly, the benefits that will result for services ‘buying in’ to these new ways of working must be clearly understood and developments must take into account both their input and, over time, the views of the public as information begins to disseminate.
The political momentum behind projects such as the Knowledge Network or the UKonline portal project certainly provides an impetus for culture change. The key imponderable is whether this momentum can be maintained as the projects broaden out from the experimental phases and start to encompass more of the public service.
There are bound to be islands of resistance and, where it exists, project managers will need to devise clever strategies to break them down and win staff buy-in. The ability to add value to work within departments – as the GSI has already demonstrated – will be one key to transforming resistance into acceptance, then moving it on to enthusiasm.
But another way to develop momentum is to produce early success. Nothing succeeds like success in knowledge management, as elsewhere in life. Here, the first signs are mixed. Certainly, there has been an encouraging early take-up of the Knowledge Network, but the UKonline portal has yet to capture the public’s imagination as a new and exciting way to interact with government.
For all its huge resources, harvesting the benefits from an effective knowledge management strategy is not something the government can do by itself. It needs help from the private sector. There are three issues both central and local governments planning knowledge management projects ought to focus on.
Firstly, a private sector partner can provide a new perspective on knowledge management strategy. It can bring a fresh view and contribute insight from the end-user’s – the citizen’s – point of view. Above all, a private sector partner can help to ask those awkward questions about the really tough issues, such as culture and change management, that need clear answers if the project is to stand a decent chance of success. Based on experience, such partners can help particularly in phasing change to find the smoothest transition, while achieving government goals.
Secondly, an outside partner can bring in a whole range of skills and resources that are simply not available in the government department. Despite public perceptions to the contrary, most departments and agencies run tight ships. They’re not loaded with large numbers of surplus staff that can be diverted to a time-consuming knowledge management project – and the most worthwhile projects soak up hundreds of people-hours.
Thirdly, a private sector partner often brings experience of previous knowledge management projects. That’s important even if – perhaps especially if – that experience is rooted mainly in the private sector. This is an area that benefits from plenty of cross-fertilisation of ideas. And the public sector still has much to learn.
The pay-off from knowledge management, if it’s made to work successfully, will be enormous. Simply automating the knowledge interface between government and citizens will provide public bodies with more performance and management information than ever before about what people want. That alone should allow public bodies to fine tune service delivery to meet users’ needs more closely and that, after all, is what government is about – serving its citizens.
Within government, it should be possible to retain more of the knowledge – call it experience, if you like – that seeps out year by year as long-time specialists leave the service, taking their tacit knowledge with them. Codify even a small portion of that, and you’ve just handed the next generation of public servants a tool that should help them avoid making the same mistakes over again, as well as considerably shortening the learning curve required to become a domain expert ready to serve.
With information across government more readily available, through tools such as Knowledge Network, it should be easier for civil servants to find the facts they need. This means that they can spend more time on analysis, policy making and management.
But the most tantalising question is: could improved knowledge management really stop those disasters caused because one department hadn’t swapped vital information with another? Perhaps that’s too much to hope for, given that rivalries will always exist in a political system where different departments have their own agendas and objectives, let alone their own systems and communication structures. But even if it reduced the number of crises, many would be delighted. Tony Blair for a start.
Anna Vacher is a business analyst with Marconi Software Solutions. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org