Digital government – not a contradiction in terms

It’s always exciting when a new ‘Perspective’ arrives at Enlightenment Towers, and the latest arrival is Digital transformation at scale by the Public Digital team. As many will know, they were the pioneers of the UK’s Government Digital Service, and the book draws on their experiences of achieving some significant changes in government practice, and citizens’ experience of contact with government.

It is not just about digital transformation in the public sector, however.The lessons apply to any established, large, complicated organisations whose processes have accreted in overlapping or inconsistent ways over time. There are plenty of those in the private sector. Maybe the executives at TSB should have read the book before embarking on their disastrous IT project.

The advance praise couldn’t be more stellar – Martha Lane Fox and Tim O’Reilly call it “essential reading” and “THE invaluable guide to bringing legacy institutions into the 21st century” respectively. There’s early coverage here and an excerpt here.

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The weaponization of trade

The latest Perspectives title is here. It’s The Weaponization of Trade by Rebecca Harding and Jack Harding (respectively a trade economist and a security researcher), and it couldn’t be more timely. The book looks at the shift from trade as an issue debated squarely in the economic domain to trade as a tool of politics and international relations.

The argument is that there economics and politics are always at play in trade policy, and they need to be in balance, with neither set of criteria dominating the other. Too much focus on economics, and the distributional – and hence political – consequences get overooked. Too much focus on politics and the chances are that there will be economic damage. We are in one of the latter phases – the Brexit “negotiations” and Donald Trump are both gifts that keep on giving in the context of this book. The rhetoric shows that politicians are conceiving of trade as a tool of state strategy (not necessarily effectively, either). These periods are never pretty in terms of their economic consqeuence. “Weaponized language has the capacity to do lasting damage,” they write. It is perfectly valid for trade to have regard to national interest, but the weaponized language of national interest is as dangerous as weapons can always be.

The joint disciplinary perspective really brings this argument to life. The economics draws on the Krugman tradition of analysing strategic trade. The security dimension, locating trade policy alongside other security issues, is illuminating. And Donald Trump makes this more timely reading every day.

By the way, the most recent preceding Perspectives were the outstanding Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin by Dave Birch and Britain’s Cities, Britain’s Future by Mike Emmerich. Upcoming titles cover digital organisations and driverless cars…

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Bad habits, hard choices

They’ve arrived! My copies of in the Perspectives series on how to design and implement a smarter tax system.

Bad Habits, Hard Choices

Bad Habits, Hard Choices

I wrote about it yesterday, and one comment on the post observed that surely taxing unhealthy foods more and healthy foods less is regressive, because people with not much income have unhealthier diets.

Yes indeed, if you assume people’s behaviour does not change at all in response to either price incentives or other incentives. David argues in the book that the present structure is unfair exactly because it harms the health of people with lower incomes. He draws also on behavioural economics to discuss how being nudged not only by post-tax prices but also by packaging information etc could encourage people to make healthier choices. Koen’s comment also argued that we don’t know which foods are unhealthy and this might not be inherent – as indeed has been said in the context of the sugar tax debate. A little is ok, it’s eating/drinking a lot that’s the problem. The book does also address this in its discussion of implementation, strongly advocating some trial and error.

I have reservations about behavioural economics and paternalism, or rather about the gung-ho enthusiasm with which economists are wielding this new tool in our toybox, but I do think makes a strong case for restructuring VAT. And this is surely a good moment to be thinking seriously about the tax system as a whole and whether it’s helping or harming society.

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