Maude‘s comments were used in a foreword for a new report by think-tank Policy Exchange, which makes a number of policy recommendations for the government to adopt a more platform approach to service design and delivery.
The report argues for the creation of a single Digital Government Account for citizens and controversially suggests that the Government Digital Service should be moved out of the Cabinet Office and put under the control of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
By way of background, the progress of the government’s Transformation Strategy and overarching digital agenda has been called into question in recent months, following a number of leadership changes within GDS, the distraction of Brexit, and the decision to move data governance and policy out of GDS and into DCMS. There is a general feeling amongst observers that the rapid progress that was made in the early years is now stalling and the central functions are losing their much needed control - which is being coupled with poor leadership and vision.
Commenting on the report, Maude said:
From 2010 to 2015, we showed that change is possible. In the course of a few short years, we built the Government Digital Service, closed more than 1500 websites creating the award-winning GOV.UK and embedded the principles of digital-by-default. In 2016, the UN ranked the UK as the world’s leading e-government, with many other countries seeking to follow in our path. Not bad from the starting point of Britain being notorious worldwide as government IT car-crash central!
However, as this report warns, there are worrying signs that in recent years progress has slipped. Without constant pressure from the centre, the natural tendency in any large organisation is for individual departments to slip back into defensive isolation. Government as a Platform will not happen without clear direction from the top. It is time to reboot. Government 2.0 is overdue.
The Policy Exchange report covers the well-trodden benefits of government creating services in a similar fashion to the private sector’s most popular ‘platform’ companies. Decentralised, smaller teams, shared data, no permissions required to try new models, using the latest digital technologies.
However, the structures of Whitehall, which are centred around departments and agencies that seek to keep control over data and services, makes this hard. The report makes a number of recommendations that could help drive this forward.
- GDS should create a single Digital Government Account
The report argues that whilst the creation of GOV.UK was an early success, bringing hundreds of websites together under a single domain, it also states that GOV.UK has not evolved appropriately over time. It argues that information is still siloed and fragmented, with GOV.UK not making use of APIs to extend to third parties and there being no consistent data layer to allow internal services to work together.
Policy Exchange Believes that in the future the citizen should be in control, not the user. Government should be more flexible, customisable and automated, allowing users to opt in to new innovations offered by government and third party providers.
The report argues for the creation of a single Government Digital Account, which could act as a “powerful tool to break the current Whitehall monopoly of top-down control”. It suggests that over the next three years GDS should explore a digital account that would show users which services they’re using and could opt into, such as telemedicine GP services, tax smoothing for Gig Economy workers, or lifelong learning for adult education.
However, most importantly, the the Government Digital Account would force different parts of the government to work together, enabling transparency over data use and act as a point of entry for new services.
- GDS should be moved to DCMS
Controversially, given the backlash from observers over the decision to move the data function from GDS into DCMS, the Policy Exchange argues that GDS should be moved in its entirety over to DCMS.
The report argues that given DCMS leads on the UK’s overall digital strategy, the divide between the two departments adds organisational complexity, diffuses accountability and slows the overall progress of transformation. It adds that given the CAbinet Office’s many other responsibilities, it runs the risk of being distracted from the long term work required for digital transformation.
It states that “bringing all of GDS together into DCMS would help create a more coherent Department for Digital and Culture”.
- The Government Chief Data Officer should work with GDS to manage a single, open roadmap of progress in digitalising core transactions and launching open APIs
The government should continue to standardise and open up more data, making greater use of common standards rather than in-house solutions fo build Government as a Platform, the report argues.
However, it notes that there is considerable reluctance from individual departments to open up their data or processes. A centralised roadmap would help provide greater transparency over the ongoing plans - allowing departments to remain agile and not to be too locked down to a rigid timeline.
- Single Departmental Plans should be updated and GDS should score them on their progress
Policy Exchange argues that Single Departmental Plans currently provide very little tru transparency and that updates to them offer even less information. In the future, it argues, annual updates to these plans should provide an explicit explanation of what steps have been taken to meet core objectives. GDS should be asked to provide their own feedback on the progress of each department and provide a green-amber-red rating on progress.
- The government should trial new Payments by Results mechanisms
In a bid to encourage an ecosystem that benefits from open data and a platform approach, the government should trial rewarding services that deliver results.
An interesting report, one that is controversial in many ways. I’m not convinced that GDS and digital should be moved in whole away from the centre, given that this removes important mechanisms for driving change. However, I’m intrigued by the ideas behind a platform approach outlined here - particularly around the single government account for users and trialing new payment mechanisms that support services (whether that’s private or publicly created services) which deliver results. As Maude notes in his foreword to the report, if you were to build Government today from scratch, the current structures would not be in place. We need to be thinking about how we truly transform Whitehall into a platform and overcome the political barriers that are in place to getting there.