Comment: The people part of the puzzle

8 Nov 2004

One of the great original objectives of the e-government drive was the potential to join up, as the UK put it. Most people who were pushing the e-government agenda spoke about the fantastic opportunity that technology was now bringing us to join things together — things that it would not have been possible to contemplate connecting before the marriage of computers and telecommunications and the availability of that potent combination in every facet of life.

So we’ve seen plans emerge in practically every country to integrate service delivery using an online front end so that the poor unfortunate service requester no longer has to traipse around all the offices, sometimes only acting as messenger between one arm of government and another in instances where, for example, they need a birth cert from the register of births to give it to the issuer of passports.

Of course, there are those who take a lot of comfort from the fact that the birth registrar doesn’t talk that much to the passport man or woman, because there’s a fair chance that other offices are not communicating either. Some would see this as an inadvertent protector of civil rights and privacy. They may be right of course and I suppose it depends on their view of government as either being there to serve all of the people by protecting everyone’s interests — both givers and takers — or whether the priority is to protect the personality and behaviour of the individual. I suspect there is much scope for debate here and I’ve absolutely no doubt that there are loads of people prepared to get up early in the morning to raise a hullabaloo on either side.

Be that as it may and getting back to the great vision of joined-up government, it’s interesting to see that most of the real successes in e-government — the visible part of e-government that is — has been in the individual agencies themselves. And I suppose it is a good thing if it makes it easier for us to comply with our obligations such as taxing the car or paying the corporate taxes or registering the allotment with the Land Registry.

Now I know the discerning citizen will notice that the common denominator in a lot of what’s been put online is that it facilitates much speedier access to his or her money. But then, that’s what citizenship is all about really, discharging your obligation by doing the right thing. And, of course, it’s far easier to justify the investment required if you can show a positive return in terms of money collected and so on. Admittedly, it’s not all one-way traffic. For instance, the automated Child Benefit System, announced earlier this year, provides for the automatic payment of the allowance in respect of second and subsequent children.

You’d wonder, though, how much success they’ll have when they start the real joining up. I mean the kind of connection that will lead to real changes in the way organisations work and inter-operate in the delivery of joined-up services. And it’s not just a matter of joining existing offices on the basis of existing services. We have yet to see the emergence of new types of public services that take a new perspective on the needs of all of the citizens and avail of the joining-up potential that technology now brings to offer new service products. I would emphasise the word “potential” because, as we now know, it’s actually quite easy to join up physical entities — such as buildings and machines — in different locations, but it’s a different matter when it comes to joining up people. And organisations are people, not buildings. So the real mountain to climb is in the people department — or human resources management (HRM).

Now HRM is an area that seems to go through cycles and fads just like we see in the IT world. The current big fashion is all about measuring performance, achieving results and promoting leadership — though the change management fad is, I think, beginning to fade. However, it seems some HR genius has deemed it possible to define people in terms of boxes and spreadsheets in a uniform way and to assume that everyone wants to be a leader or needs to be better than their best. So all over the place – usually in the larger organisations – you have people in middle management (who know full well that this form filling is all a load of smoke) pushing staff to invent new personal goals and identify their strengths that they can use to leverage their weak areas, so they can all aspire to be managers themselves.
What puzzles me about all of this is how this kind of two-dimensional thinking has seeped into the world of HRM when anybody with a modicum of experience in the real world will tell you that humans are the most complex, unpredictable and the most difficult-to-control resource that any organisation has to cope with. As someone said to me once: “HR would be a great job if it wasn’t for the people.”

Another facet of this, of course, is that people tend to congregate and operate in groups. And groups like to have an identity or brand. Brands command loyalty and respect and create an aura of exclusivity or distinction. So when the issue of joining up comes to be really tackled, what are they going to do about branding and identity? Trying to put everyone in those Mao-type suits and forcing them to dance to the same tune is probably going to create more headaches than it will resolve. And the more alike these branded organisations are, the more they tend to despise each other. So how are they going to join up?

Of course, I’m no psychologist nor even an organisational guru, but I have a very strong conviction that if they don’t actually start looking at how integration will work — I mean people integration — they are not going to get much further. People means HR in organisation speak. And HRM should be treated more as an art than a science.

By Syl O’Connor