There was an interesting article in this week’s Economist article: Data and Governance – How the government lost its nerds. The article looks at the role of a technology platform approach to help govern, curate and share UK government data that is hidden away in silos.
In a nutshell a government initiative centered on a vision, leadership and technology that led to a platform approach to a complex problem of linking data silos. Sharing data is one thing; ensuring trust in data shared is another. This is hard work as the number and scale of silos increase. And so, a unified platform that ensures reliable data is curated via an easy-to-use and composable-like platform was conceived.
The new platform seemed to generate value and was making progress. However, it was perceived by senior civil servants, who oversee the silos, to undermine their control. Fiefdoms were under threat. The whole point is that silos will never go away but everyone needs to share data as if those silos were circumvented. Control was put at risk; That was exactly the point. Silos perceived and protected as fiefdoms slow down innovation.
There were challenges early on, but they were sidestepped with the strong vision and effective leadership. But government leadership changed and the visionaries for the platform changed roles. Finally, the permanent secretaries got their way. Their behavior, according to the Economist article, belied their intention to protect their silos, their fiefdoms, and they avoided using the new platform.
The article ends with a sign of hope. New government leadership has prioritized the platform and approach again. It may well become the solution originally envisaged. But the message of the story is clear: no technology, however good or shiny, will be a success without the right vision and follow-through to encourage and reward change. It’s not true to say in this case that culture failed here. What failed was leadership; the right leadership is at the source of culture.