On May 7, the British electorate will go to the polls in what's expected to be a very close General Election to determine who runs the country for the next five years.
While previous elections in recent times have been dominated by two major parties - the Conservatives and the Labour Party - for the past five years the UK has been governed by a coalition of the Conservatives and the smaller Liberal Democrats.
A coalition seems at present the most likely outcome of this year's election, but potentially with a less 'clean cut' set of alliances following the seeming rise of the right-wing UK Independence Party and the left-wing Green Party, threatening Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats, as well as the prospect of the Scottish National Party making substantial gains in Scotland and holding a balance of power at UK level in Westminster as a result.
At diginomica over the coming months, we'll be taking a look at the digital plans of each of the parties. Whichever party ends up in government, there's a lot to do, not least continuing the revolution of public sector IT delivery that has been in evidence over the past five years.
Without taking any political stance and before the real heat of battle gets underway, this may be a moment to pause to reflect that much progress has been made under the auspices of Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude.
Achievements include the G-Cloud national cloud computing intiative, the formation of the Government Digital Service (GDS), a ruthless re-negotiation of bloated and self-serving contracts with public sector IT providers who had grown fat on the back of the taxpayer and an enthusiastic support for greater inclusion of Small and Medium Enteprises (SME) in government procurement.
This is not to say that there's not still a hell of a lot that needs fixing. There are important battles still to be fought. The winding-down of big ticket IT contracts over the next 18 months will be a major test of nerve for whoever's sitting in the hot seat, while the shambles of the Universal Credit systems development - and Whitehall's obdurate response to that crisis - reminds us all too clearly that bad habits take time to change.
There are also significant challenges that need to be fought abroad as well, building on the opposition to some of the European Commission's follies, such as trying to enforce the odious Right to be Forgotten or making sense of 101 strands of a 'simplified' pan-European Cloud Computing strategy.
Maude finally moves on
Who ends up in the Cabinet Office seat remains to be seen, but it won't be the current occupant, Maude, who this weekend announced that he would be standing down and not seeking re-election in May after almost three decades in Parliament.
At the Cabinet Office, Maude has been in situ for five years - much to the annoyance of the more recalcitrant IT providers who thought they could sit him out and pay only lip-service to the modernising reforms being pushed through. Again without political favour on our part, it's been refreshingly clear that Maude has been a minister in charge of his brief and with a genuine commitment to reform.
He's been massively assisted in his role by staying put rather than being moved on to a new post after a couple of years in the kind of ministerial merry-go-round that typically ensures that no sooner than a minister starts getting a grip on his or her department than they get moved on to start again somewhere else. Thus it is that that the status quo is maintained and reform is made so difficult.
So we'd like to express a hope here and now that whatever the political complexion of the new master or mistress of the Cabinet Office turns out to have, that he or she seeks to replicate Maude's tenure and digs in for the long term. From the off-the-record grumbles of a number of major providers to the public sector who assumed all they needed to do was stall for time and the reforms would go away with Maude, sticking around is a good policy.
That said, there are those who didn't entirely appreciate the Maude regime, notes Georgina O'Toole, public sector watcher at Techmarketview:
Many of the large suppliers are still feeling the effect of their now-infamous ‘Maude Moments’. And some small suppliers continue to struggle to make an impact in Whitehall despite the drive to work with more SMEs.
There has been much good about what he has done. Government IT needed shaking up, on both the buy-side and the supply-side.
But there have also been decisions made that have been controversial. Both the sustainability of the savings and the longevity of the reforms have been called into question. Indeed, in Maude’s letter confirming he won’t be seeking re-election (see here), he states, “I’ve worked closely with our brilliant Chancellor to drive these reforms, but there is much to do - before the election and after - to ensure that the reforms are irreversible”.
Suppliers will be keen to know who will step into Maude’s shoes to march forward with the agenda; his tenacity, and his unwavering commitment to changing Government and supplier behaviours, will be hard to match. Unfortunately Maude leaves before we have proof that the changes he has made will stand the test of time.
Naureen Khan, Associate Director for Central Government at techUK added:
Maude’s leadership has raised awareness of the importance of digital as a driver of efficiency across the public sector and under his direction we have seen some important initiatives, most notably the creation of GDS and a strong focus on opening up the public sector market to small businesses. We commend the Minister’s work to make the UK a global leader in cyber security.
However, as the Minister himself points out, there is still much to do. It is vital that the next Government continues with the civil service reforms, and we are encouraged by the recent high profile appointments brining in experienced leaders from the private sector, such as the new CEO of the civil service, John Mazoni, who must continue the reforms led by Minister Maude.
Meanwhile Maude this weekend told his local newspaper of how he's seen government IT change and that the UK has become a global exemplar:
Last week I received an email from a friend who’s a minister in the Australian Government. He was letting me know that he’s succeeded in setting up an operation in Canberra modelled on our GDS. He said: “If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery you should feel very flattered!”
Last summer in Washington DC I visited the US Digital Service. They also say they copied what we’ve done. The source code for gov.uk is being used by the New Zealand Government, among others.
So it’s quite a turnaround. Better public services, delivered at much lower cost, and using many more small and innovative British based suppliers.
And all done in a way that is world-leading, with others picking up and replicating our model.
Maude will be sorely missed as a genuine advocate for reform where reform has been badly needed.
Coming up in our Election 2015 coverage:
Later this week, we'll be talking to Maude and representatives of the Government Digital Service about digital transformation progress to date.
Next week we'll pick up with Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for digital government and Julian Huppert MP, Liberal Democrat spokesman to understand what might happen next.
We'll also be looking at the future of the G-Cloud and the Digital Marketplace under the Government Digital Service.