Digital government - the view from the left

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan December 17, 2013
Summary:
"Digital government has not even begun to disrupt power relationships." The Labour Party's Chi Onwurah has 23 years in IT behind her and strong ideas on the digital future.

chinyelosusan_0
We’ve tracked a lot of the UK government’s digital strategy in recent months, culminating in recent weeks with up close and personal time with the UK Chief Operating Officer Stephen Kelly and Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude.

But of course, today’s cabinet minister might be tomorrow’s opposition spokesman while the current ruling administration may give way to today’s opposition party. Such shifts will of course bring their own changes to come to pass.

When I spoke to Kelly last week, we discussed one of Maude’s boasts of late: that he has effectively sat out those in the supplier community who assumed that he would be shuffled off to another politicial post before he could force through the reforms he’s been spearheading.

I put it to Kelly that at some point Maude would have to move on - either through Prime Ministerial whim or by wider electoral determining - and wondered if such a change, either to a new minister of the same political complexion or to one of opposing colours, would have an impact on the direction of the UK as a digital government.

Kelly’s response was interesting: reform of the nature of digital transformation is apolitical and that whoever sits in Maude’s place in years to come is most likely to want to continue down the same path.

View from left of centre

With that in mind it’s interesting then to look at remarks from Chi Onwurah MP from the recent Digital Leaders Conference.

Onwurah is Maude’s opposite number as shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and as such if the Labour Party were to win the next UK general election in May 2015 would be a front runner to take the helm of the government’s digital direction.

One major difference between Onwurah and Maude (and indeed almost any politician who’s ever had responsibilty for an IT related brief) is that she’s a tech expert, having had a 23 year career in IT before entering politics. While Maude has mastered his brief to an extent that has taken many of his critics by surprise, Onwurah has the advantage of playing on familiar ground.

She’s a member of the opposition party and as such part of her remit is to call the government over its shortcomings. This she doesn’t hesitate to do, criticising the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration for what she dubs its politicization of IT.

In colourful language, she drew attention to a recent report from the Policy Exchange thinktank - Smaller Better Faster Stronger - in which she argues that the Prime Minister David Cameron's former digital advisor Rohan Silva seeks to portray the public sector as

“an digitally backward captured client of ICT oligarchs only now being reluctantly dragged into the 21st Century by free market forces.”

She has harsh words for Maude’s frequent criticism of what has become known as the ‘oligopoly’ of mainstream public sector IT providers while highlighting the expose of the recent Universal Credit IT debacle as a sign of the government’s lack of management prowess:

“This Government has not hesitated to criticise both the ICT suppliers and the digital services of the last Labour government, claiming to make billions of pounds of savings by breaking up a ‘closed cartel’ of government suppliers.

“The long-heralded disaster of the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) flagship Universal Credit project – where hundreds of millions of pounds of IT assets have been written off – together with the NAO’s recent and trenchant criticism of their supplier management has I hope made some dent in this overweening arrogance.”

Onwurah-low-res
It’s a tricky one to pull off for any Labour politician to lay into an costly IT disaster. Universal Credit may have wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers money to date, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the billions that were poured away over a decade on Labour’s vanity project, the NHS National Programme for IT!

Frankly she’s on equally shaky ground when she boasts:

“Labour has traditionally been technology friendly, from inventing the phrase ‘the white heat of technology’ fifty years ago to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s promise of digital Government by 2005 and the 2003 Communications Act which set out comprehensive vision and policies for a converged communications sector, something this Government has so comprehensively failed to do.”

OK, but the white heat of technology never took light, did it? And unless I missed a memo, digital government by 2005 didn’t get delivered. (Unless we’re counting having hundreds of web sites up and running as digital government? And if we are, well, let’s not be silly.)

But Onwurah’s on safer ground when she claims:

“The truth is that the digital divide is growing, this Government’s abandonment of Labour’s Universal Broadband pledge, mishandling of Broadband rollout, and imposition of Digital by Default as a cost cutting rather than service improvement programme, together with growing economic inequality, the cost of living crisis and the rise of Big Data and Cloud means there is a real risk of a large disenfranchised and disempowered underclass developing whilst the privileged enjoy greater freedom and transparency.”

And you will do what?

The obvious question now of course is: what will Labour do differently then? The answer to that will come before the next election campaign kicks off in the form of an updated version of the Digital Britain report from the dying days of the last Labour government, to be imaginatively called Digital Britain 2015.

While thin on detail at the moment, Onwurah paints some broad brushstrokes of what to expect when she says:

“Labour has historically championed the many against the few. Technology has the power to entrench existing power relationships or to redress them.

“I believe that we are not even beginning to reap the positive benefits of the way in which technology can change our public services.

“Certainly, digital government has not even begun to disrupt power relationships.

“The internet and big data should lead to more direct, horizontal as opposed to vertical, relationships that enable individuals to redress the balance of power with governments, big companies and institutions.”

Chi-Onwurah-DL-Conference1
This leads on to the undeniable need to tackle digital inclusion with Onwurah drawing on some uncomfortable statistics to back up her points: 80% of government interactions with the public take place with the bottom 25% of society, while only 15% of people living in deprived areas have used a government online service or website in the last year, compared to 55% nationally.

“Right now, though, most people are experiencing what I call digital discomfort—about the security services knowing who we are calling, Amazon telling us what we should be buying, our children being exposed to online porn, Google recording our every move, or simply the onslaught of spam. Among far too many of my constituents, the fear of digital outstrips understanding of the opportunities.

“If we – government and industry – do not drive the positive power of technology than it will transform the relationship with Government for the few… but entrench the disadvantage of the many.”

She goes on:

“whilst they must be evangelists, digital leaders must not see themselves as missionaries colonising the ignorant.
Whatever the question, technology is never the answer – on its own.

“Technology only works in the context of the people and processes who work with it.

“When it comes to technology there is definitely such a thing as society.

“If we see digital as a way of stripping out costs and replacing people than we are doomed to failure – bad technology always costs more than good people.

“If we see it as a way of simply shrinking the state then we leave the vulnerable more vulnerable.”

Verdict

Heartfelt, informed and sincerely meant without doubt.

The emphasis on digital inclusion is very welcome. This remains the single biggest challenge facing the transformation to a digital society.

That said, I’m not entirely sure that there’s actually that much difference between what Labour sees as digital strategy and current version.

There’s not a lot that I can think of in the Digital Britain policy report that the Government Digital Service isn’t already looking at, (reinforcing Kelly’s view that this is largely apolitical?).

Whatever the case, there's no obvious course direction change in sight from where I'm sitting.