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GOV.UK success shows that KM strategy without an execution capability would fail

Efficient knowledge delivery needs standardised implementation to succeed

Irony is a wonderful thing.

Just this morning, at a TEDx event in Hong Kong, we were extolling the virtues of the UK's Government Digital Service (GDS). Created by ex-Guardian digital strategist Mike Bracken, GDS is touted to have saved the UK taxpayer as much as GBP1.7 billion between 2014 and 2015 alone through its implementation of unified knowledge management systems and processes. More importantly, GDS even managed to unify content and publishing standards across diverse government departments.

The Gov.UK online service is award-winning. Its simplicity hides the genius behind its making. Bracken re-purposed the editor’s craft, striping away jargon, condensing complicated process documentation, and cutting through the clutter of government-speak. On Gov.UK, this skill was applied to operational knowledge, transforming it into easy-to-follow process documentation that can walk members of the public step-by-simplified-step through everything from renewing their driving licences to filing their taxes.

When we first encountered both of these activities in the UK in 2004, the process was a nightmare. Having just moved from Hong Kong to the UK, we were spoiled for simplicity in engaging with government departments efficiently. So by the time Bracken got the buy-in to build GDS and coerced UK Government departments into doing things one way, we had grown to expect little but bureaucracy from the British civil service. That Bracken successfully persuaded the powers that be to amalgamate all government department IT budgets under GDS and even give him approval rights over a unified procurement process came as something of a shock.

That he succeeded in delivering simplicity in working with the government through also unifying online publishing styles and knowledge production processes did not, though, surprise us. We were involved in doing precisely the same thing at the same time for one of the world's most complex, globally distributed banks. The only way to achieve success fast was to get C-level buy-in for a knowledge-unification strategy, and with it the mandate to centralise all operational knowledge production processes through a single global unit answerable to one individual and following one style.

GDS achieved this for the UK Government. The GDS style guide, made available free to the global public, is in and of itself an act of intellectual philanthropy that can benefit any entity looking to unify and streamline knowledge management operations.

At TEDx this morning we were wondering aloud -- in the company of the Hong Kong Government's own Chief and Deputy Chief Information Officers -- why a city many times simpler than the UK and renowned for its love of efficiency lagged behind in this respect. The rambling answer about the Hong Kong Government wanting to be a "light-touch facilitator" of digital advancement did not resonate. Perhaps the question was misunderstood: does not a government have an obligation to lead by example? We were questioning why working digitally with the Hong Kong Government did not appear to have seen advancement since 2004, and why the same seemed to be true when attempting to work digitally with Hong Kong's larger organisations.

In the UK, digital commerce has been so successful that today it is having an oddly negative effect on carbon emissions. Sales of delivery vans are booming thanks to an increase in online orders even as the environmental hazards of diesel fuel are making headlines globally thanks to Volkswagen. Yet in Hong Kong, one is hard pressed to get anything purchased digitally delivered without extra cost or hassle.

But we digress. The issue under debate was whether or not a government should strive to set an example to the corporate world and society in general putting an unified, simplified face on its own digital engagement channels. This in the face of the roaring success of GDS, which is apparently being copied by the United States and even Singapore.

Imagine our chagrin when, during a coffee break, we read the headline [UK] Government digital agency fights to protect budget.

It would seem that even as the UK hopes to save up to GBP20 billion in public spending by 2019 to 2020, the very agency that has proven it can deliver efficiencies by moving services online is itself in danger.

The danger, though, comes not from any seeming desire to cut GDS' own budgets. Ever since former UK Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude agreed to back the Bracken plan to curb government departments’ autonomy in the interests of more efficient and unified approach to digital government, has GDS proven itself repeatedly. The issue is, instead, one of leadership. Bracken himself resigned in August, and GDS has been seeing an exodus of top talent recently.

With that the wolves of departments emasculated by GDS have started to crawl out of their caves. The seem to want to regain the federated autonomy they once had and that was proven by GDS to have failed to serve the best interests of the British public.

Politics may prevail over sense and sensibility. If that happens and GDS is eviscerated or even shut down, living proof that a good knowledge management strategy must be accompanied by a standardised execution mechanism could be eliminated. There are few who could pull off what Bracken -- or for that matter we -- did successfully in this space.

Who then will the Hong Kong Government have to learn from, assuming it decides to live up to Hong Kong's reputation for efficiency and streamline its own digital services using knowledge management and publishing best practices the way GDS did?

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