Ducks swim calmly and smoothly along, obscuring the fact that below the surface they may be paddling frantically. That’s the analogy used by Louise Kidney commenting on a post I wrote last year to describe how joined up government may be working in practice.

The best that government can be is to provide that seamless service and for no one to ever see how hard the ducks legs are flapping under the water.

This is not an ornithological blog, so the swimming techniques of actual ducks are not germane here, but the image is an arresting one, and it’s worth thinking about how well it describes the workings of government. The analogy is both powerful and attractive: if it is accurate, we can concentrate on above the surface smoothness (which is relatively easy to do) and not worry too much about below the surface fragmentation (which is much harder).

So are governments really like ducks? Are frantically paddling legs the only, or most effective, way of achieving serene progress across the water? Can sub-surface paddling in fact be insulated from the top layer, so preserving at least the appearance of serenity? And if not, should we live with that, or try to do something about it?

There is quite a widespread perception that though this form of propulsion may not be very elegant (however well it works for ducks), it’s not worth trying to fix it, or even not important that it should be fixed, because the only thing which really matters is above the surface performance. Closely related is the argument, with which I have some sympathy, that attempting to fix the infrastructure would be a massive and futile distraction, guaranteeing that nothing changes for the better above or below the surface. You can certainly get a long way to getting smoothly moving ducks without getting too far below the surface – there’s a world of shiny websites out there, some of them even in government. But too often that is only true until you actually want to do something, where beyond fairly low levels of leg flapping, the pretence of surface level seamlessness breaks down, resulting in both poor service and poor efficiency.

I used to argue, a long time ago, that the thing we used to call e-government was about

  • customer focus
  • service integration
  • organisational transformation
  • efficiency
  • … and putting a few services online

The reason for writing it down that way at the time was to counter the near universal perception that it was the fifth one which mattered and that the other four were either distractions or invisible. But if we want efficiently paddling ducks, it is the first four which allow the fifth to happen.

The paddling ducks analogy assumes that the two layers are separable, that an elegant surface can sit on top of decidedly inelegant underwater processes. That may work in some circumstances, but it would be rash to rely on it. Even if it is correct as a description of current reality, I think we can – and must – do better than that, because if the legs are flapping too hard, the service won’t be seamless and it certainly won’t be efficient. That’s not necessarily to say that everything has to be integrated with everything else, still less that it is all best integrated by government (there are very strong arguments, for example, why the personal information which is at least part of what is needed is best approached in very different ways).

From that perspective there are perhaps three broad levels at which we could do this:

Level 1: simple integration – information can be aligned, but transactions are fundamentally fragmented

That’s a critical first step and much harder to do in practice than it seems that it should be in principle. In the UK it took over ten years to get from the first articulation of the intention to an implementation which came anywhere close to delivering it, in the form of This level includes (or perhaps this is level 1a) transforming the quality of individual services: that’s vitally important, but doesn’t in itself reduce the level of cross-functional flapping and doesn’t support common and consistent user experience.

Level 2: transactional integration – complex heavy lifting to bolt things together, succeeding despite the architecture

In some ways this is the hardest level of all to make work. Each connection has to be crafted separately and be justified as a point to point solution rather than as an element of a wider system. It can be made to work where there are strong high volume processes, but is unlikely ever to become comprehensive and consistent. The reuse of passport photographs for driving licences is a good example of how it can work well; examples of how it works less well or doesn’t work at all are not hard to find.

Level 3: service integration – architecture supports integration, so individual services can be readily configured

In theory, a consistent modular architecture and clear and consistent data standards lifts the problem up a level, and the question becomes one of what it is useful to bring together, rather than one of what can be made to be possible. That not only allows for a much wider variety of connections, it also supports much more flexible configuration of those connections. If that in turn is linked to a user centred approach to identity management, levels of integration and configuration can be driven by users as well as providers. Critically, this isn’t, and mustn’t be, a shared services soup or a centralised monolith; it’s an approach to standardising architecture and data to allow services to be configured to people’s needs and circumstances. That also needs to go well beyond a structural or technological view of integration. As Tim Davies put it, using a metaphor which in this context we can take more literally,

To use a software metaphor: the interface of all these services needs to stay relatively consistent, even if the underlying structures and components that make them happen are constantly changing (and even the accountancy or meeting minutes can become more networked with the right tools and working practices). There is work to do to keep the interfaces consistent, and one of the challenges of networked working is both embracing change, and embracing consistency at once.

The reason for spelling all that out in tedious detail is to bring out a choice we can choose to make. Is level 1 all we aspire to? Do we have any ambition to reach level 3, and if so is it better to get there by going through level 2 or by by-passing it altogether?

Too often, I suspect, the choice has been seen as being between levels 1 and 2 – and thus no choice at all, because level 2 doesn’t really work. But the choice has moved on, and increasingly there is an opportunity to choose between 1 and 3. That’s not an easy one either: reaching level 3 would be extraordinarily difficult. Arguably though, the ambition of the Government Digital Strategy cannot fully be achieved without it:

Each service has often been designed individually, rather than developing a consistent approach to user experience across the government digital estate. Hence the user experience of government transactions is inconsistent and unnecessarily confusing, particularly to less confident users.

Leading private sector digital businesses have learned that familiarity drives usage, and usage drives familiarity. This lack of a consistent, high-quality user experience is a critical issue holding back performance and adoption of our digital services.

That leads inexorably to the challenge Mike Bracken has set for 2013:

The challenge this year is to deliver new, re-designed transactions to meet our digital ambition, and to do that we must change our approach to delivery. And we can only do it together, by placing user needs at the forefront of our thinking.

But we can also only do it by recognising that users’ needs for individual services are not completely isolated from each other and by starting to build for a level 3 world.

We are getting the ducks to swim. Now we need to help them fly in formation.

Ducks flying in formation

Pictures by Daryl Mitchell and John K licensed under Creative Commons


  1. I read this yesterday and some thoughts stuck in my mind about it, so if you’ll forgive me….

    The first thing is: what is the purpose of the serenity? If all public services ran like clockwork, what would that do? I would argue that it might turn our citizens into consumers and if that happened we might not like it. I favour transparency. As a taxpayer I want to see the legs furiously padlding away.

    The second thing is that your “levels” remind me of a maturity model, specifically the one found in this book

    and on slide 16 of this presentation

    That does mean that there is a level missing – let’s call it 2a – where we do service integration on core services. That, of course, means deciding what our core services are.

    Finally, I’d like to propose a final level of integration, where services are designed not to integrate with each other but with all the stuff that is outside government. Local government is starting to do some stuff in this area around web content strategy.

    1. Thanks, that’s really interesting. I like the idea of maturity models in this context, and in some ways slide 17 of the presentation you refer to is even more interesting – the idea that global maturity eventually buys you back local maturity is very attractive (though, as ever, the substance is another question).
      But I am not sure that I see a tension between efficiency and transparency: transparency is a quality of the water, which is independent of the means chosen for swimming through it, and I am not convinced that there is a huge demand for transparent ineffectiveness.

      1. ok, at the risk of pushing the metaphor beyond breaking point the surface of still water is reflective. We only know that effort is being expended as a result of a bit of turbulence.

        These are our services which we commission and supply as well as use. We’re not just on the demand side. There may not be much demand for ineffectiveness but there’s little for expensive gloss either. There’s a balance to be struck I think.

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