Does Britain need a Minister for Digital Government?

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez June 7, 2017
Summary:
With the results of the general election due on Friday, should the new government - in whatever form - appoint a new Minister for Digital Government?

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As Britain heads to the polls today to decide who will be the next Prime Minister - in what has been a rather volatile and unpredictable campaign - a blog by the Institute for Government caught my attention, which proclaims in its headline: “We need a Minister for Digital Government”.

The author Daniel Thornton, states the the “consequences of the lack of leadership are clear”, citing the recent effective shutdown of many parts of the NHS, because computers using out of date Windows software were infected with the WannaCry ransomeware (amongst other points).

The post got me thinking about how little we have heard about digital government in recent months. Yes, we’ve had an election and purdah to deal with, but I don’t believe that’s the main cause. Months prior to the announcement of the snap election, things were feeling eerily quiet.

And as we know, it has been a turbulent couple of years for the Government Digital Service, with a number of senior leadership changes, the departure of valued staff members, and rows with departments over digital change. Not to mention a rather lacklustre Transformation Strategy, which didn’t exactly set the world on fire.

There’s been a feeling of slowdown amongst observers, with many beginning to feel that perhaps the system was a bit too resistant to change (although, please don’t take this as a criticism of the many dedicated civil servants doing their best to make that change happen).

As Thornton notes, the political leadership at the beginning of the coalition government has yet to be replicated. He says:

The new government that is formed after 8 June should include a Minister for Digital Government, whose job is to drive changes in the way government works, to save money and provide better public services.

As Minister for the Cabinet Office from 2010-2015, Lord (Francis) Maude provided visible political leadership for digital government. After his departure, and for the past two years, there has been a lack of political leadership for digital government from the centre of Whitehall.

Big decisions, such as about which system to use for verifying citizens’ identity across government, have been ducked. Unlike their predecessors, Theresa May and Chancellor Philip Hammond have not spoken about digital government. Together with comments by Amber Rudd about “necessary hashtags,” it seems that senior ministers are not taking a keen interest in digital government.

All of this is true. Thornton goes on to say that prioritisation requires leadership from the centre of Whitehall so that key services get the resources they need.

He added:

There has been some progress in online services like paying car tax and registering to vote, and government has started to open data, so, for example, anyone worried about flooding can get alerts about local rivers. In 2016 the UK came top of a United Nations survey on digital government.

However, much remains to be done.

People are used to steady improvements in how they search for information, shop and bank online. These improvements are provided by companies that have embraced digital technology and new ways of working. Government needs to do the same.

Is the answer a new Minister?

It’s fair to say that the political savvy of Maude has been missed. But is what is required a new Minister for Digital Government? There are arguments both for an against the idea, both of which are compelling. I myself am unsure whether or not this would be effective - largely because it depends who ends up with the job.

Pondering this I took to Twitter to ask my followers, many of which have worked in government or who work closely with government, their views on the idea. And the response was interesting. Take a look:

My take

As you can see, even though social media is described as an echo chamber, the response on Twitter is varied. There is concern that a Minister for Digital Government will result in someone that doesn’t actually know what they’re talking about, leading to decisions being made just for the sake of it. Equally, there is an argument that if you spin off digital into its own silo, then it won’t ever just become the new norm. And there is a general consensus that politicians don’t generally know what they’re talking about when it comes to technology.

However, others feel that putting someone in place could help take on the system that seems so reluctant to change, whilst also becoming an evangelist for digital across government - such as Maude once did. And it was rightly pointed out that this shouldn’t just be about civil service change, but also the impact of digital and infrastructure across the broader society (I see a particular need here for legislation to catch up).

I like the idea of a Minister that focuses on service delivery, rather than digital itself (it’s just the medium by which service delivery will happen). I’ve argued time and time again that, much like companies that have traditionally dominated and are being challenged by the likes of Uber, it’s not enough for government to just apply ‘digital’ to the way that it did things previously. It needs to rethink its whole approach.

And that requires political will, which currently is lacking - because the consequences will likely mean having to answer difficult questions e.g. job displacement, retraining, structural reform. It’s for that reason that I do think we need some sort of senior political figure that is driving such agenda. Whether that post carries the title ‘digital’, I’m ambivalent. However, someone with authority needs a mandate to make change happen - otherwise I fear that a grass roots approach to innovation won’t be enough.