Cabinet Office Minister - ‘Digital can make government a servant of the people again’

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez September 6, 2016
Summary:
Recently appointed Cabinet Office Minister, Ben Gummer, gave his first speech this week at TechUK to launch new guidelines to help businesses of all sizes work with government.

Ben Gummer
Minister for the Cabinet Office, Ben Gummer

New Minister for the Cabinet Office, Ben Gummer, gave his first speech this week at the offices of TechUK in London, to launch a ‘six point plan’ that aims to further open up the government to work with technology suppliers, levelling out the playing field for suppliers of all sizes.

The plan is essentially a list of guidelines that both government buyers and suppliers have to abide by, which is aimed at boosting collaboration between the public sector and industry, whilst also improving services for citizens.

However, given that this was the Minister’s first speech since his appointment during the cabinet reshuffle just a short few weeks ago, following the result of the EU referendum, he also touched on what the outcome of Brexit means for government and the tech sector in the UK, as well as his vision for digital’s role in reforming the relationship between the citizen and the sate. He said:

The decision that this country took on 23rd of June means that we have to change our relationship with the rest of the world. Our job is to make sure that that relationship is entirely positive, that we get the best deal for Britain.

If we are going to make a success of Brexit, which we are determined to do, the digital economy will lie right at the heart of that.

The vote was also a reflection on the state of politics, whole institutions of the state were becoming increasingly distant from the people they look to serve. Isn’t it bizarre that we are more contactable because of digital, but there is a distance between government and the people. A strange distance.

Minister Gummer went on to say that whilst he campaigned for Remain, now that the vote is in, the challenge has to be ‘grabbed with both hands’. And part of this is going to be about reestablishing the idea of “government as the servant of the people”.

He acknowledged that this might seem a blindingly obvious thing to say, but that anyone that has tried to engage with the government over the internet over the last 20 years or so will know that government rarely presents itself in this way. Minister Gummer said:

The most important person in the relationship of when someone looks on their iPhone or approaches government on the their laptop, it’s not the government, it’s the person making their enquiry. It’s a more important relationship than the customer relationship that has been central to the digital transformation of the economy over the last 25 years. It’s actually a sacred relationship. It’s a relationship that makes freedom, democracy and liberty possible.

It’s a scandal therefore that we have not done as much as other parts of the economy to change that relationship, to enable government to be a servant of the people in the way that so many businesses have seen the opportunity to make companies better responsive to their customer needs.

This is a full transformation, not just in the way that government works. Not just to make us more efficient and cheaper and better and able to spend taxpayer money more wisely. Not so that we just run our departments better, but right at the core of it. That we are basically competent and we respond to citizens.

The supplier standard

It will be welcome news to many that Minister Gummer said today that he will maintain the ambitions of his predecessors and continue to push for more SMEs to work with government, including keeping the target of a third of all business going to the SMEs by 2020.

He said that he will “do everything possible” and that he wants a government that doesn’t work with SMEs reluctantly, but works with them in a fruitful way and isn’t “putting blocks in their path”. The Minister said:

We have been saying this for years, but we will be judged on our actions. We have done well so far, but we intend to do better.

The Minister said that digital makes the relationship between SMEs and the state possible, which might not have been true in the past. He pointed to the Digital Marketplace (which incorporates the G-Cloud) as evidence of this, which has now reached over £1.3 billion in sales.

However, he insisted that more could be done. And part of this is the announcement of the new ‘Supplier Standard’ today, which has been described as a “two-way commitment” that aims to “build and support collaborative and constructive relationships between the government and the tech industry”.

The following six principle will form the benchmark for IT and tech contracts in the future:

1. User needs first
2. Data is a public asset
3. Services built on open standards and reusable components
4. Simple, clear, fast transactions
5. Ongoing engagement
6. Transparent contracting

Whilst these may be familiar terms and turns of phrase for those following the Government Digital Service closely, they are now essentially a requirement for suppliers and government to do business together, not matter your size. Whenever they are engaging, this will be the basis from which both suppliers and government must work. Minister Gummer said:

I hope in the next few months you will see that the government is serious about living these principles, not just saying them.

GDS

.GOV on blue digital background © Denys Rudyi - Fotolia.com
Given the disruption that has occurred at the Government Digital Service (GDS) over the past couple of months, which saw its executive director Stephen Foreshew-Cain get pushed out in favour of Kevin Cunnington, who was director general of business transformation at the Department for Work and Pensions, it’s unsurprising that Minister Gummer also got questioned over the organisation’s future role.

Some, including myself, have been sceptical about the motives behind the changes - suggesting that it could mean a shift in direction for GDS going forward.

However, the Minister today wanted to allay concerns and hinted that GDS could continue to play a dominant role in transformation in the years ahead. He said:

As someone who is not entirely familiar with your sector, I have to say I was given a surprise in my first few weeks. I mean, I thought Parliament was a gossipy place. But the discussions and the widespread exchange of views that did happen within the first few weeks did surprise me. They were kind of frustrating at the same time, because what people will see in the next few weeks is that the vision this government has for digital has never been so clear, so intense and so coordinated.

GDS is one of the things that we are most proud of in the Cabinet Office. There few things that the Cabinet Office do that gets the attention of the world out there, and the Government Digital Service is one of them.

My observation on coming to the job was that GDS was not doing all that it could do. It wasn’t being given the resources and the power to do what I wanted it to do throughout government. Especially in terms of the agenda for transforming the whole infrastructure of the way that government does business. I have already commissioned it to do two very large pieces of work that it wasn’t doing before. And I’m really pleased that Kevin [Cunnington] is coming in to lead the organisation. I think you will be pleased with some of the things you are going to hear.

My take

A promising start for the Minister. And good news for those in favour of GDS. Whether or not Minister Gummer has figured out the cultural challenges that lie ahead in terms of getting the rest of Whitehall on-board with his vision for ‘government as a servant’, remains to be seen. But he’s not wrong that digital could play a central role in this, if the state is willing to completely rethink how it operates.

Image credit - .GOV on blue digital background © Denys Rudyi - Fotolia.com

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