Labour has this week launched an independent review into digital government, making 35 recommendations on what an incoming Labour government should do to improve technology services if it gains power after the general election next May.
Shadow Minister for digital, cyber and social enterprise, Chi Onwurah MP, launched the digital review at Camden Council's offices in London this week and explained how a Labour government would use digital to “share power between the many”.
The report focuses heavily on devolving the power of digital to the people, enabling local governments, giving people control of their data and creating an open platform for government that allows for the re-use of services – but does the report go far enough?
I would argue not quite. Whilst many of the recommendations are incredibly admirable and should definitely be included as a focus after the next general election, whichever government comes into power, gaps in the report have left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable.
I would also like to say before continuing that I have a lot of respect for Onwurah – who independently commissioned the report and has a background in technology and engineering (something which is rare for politicians in this position) – but I do think the report's recommendations miss out some of the more critical, commercial considerations that are pressing in Whitehall at the moment.
There are also some comments included in the report about the government's current relationship with the larger suppliers that will no doubt raise a few eyebrows in the Cabinet Office and GDS.
However, the main theme throughout the report focuses on digital inclusion and devolving the power of digital to local communities and to individuals – as opposed to control being retained in Whitehall. Onwurah said this week:
Five years ago I entered politics for the same reason that almost 25 years previously that I entered engineering – because I wanted to make the world work better for everyone, not just for a lucky few. And all too often government is something that is done to the people. I have been absolutely determined that the Labour digital government should not be like that.
Digital should be [about] that Labour value of sharing power between the many, not a means for a slimmed down state to exclude and to divide, which too often seems the approach that this government is taking.
Onwurah said that Labour wants to “improve services and empower citizens, whilst also being cost effective and efficient”.You can find the digital review and all of the recommendations here. It's worth remembering that this is an independent review and Onwurah is going to report back in January on what Labour is actually going to commit to, whilst it costs and reviews all of the recommendations.
But let's start with what's good about the review – because there are plenty of good things to take away. Labour's focus on inclusion and working with local governments and communities should be commended. These are areas that the current government hasn't made a priority, despite some late developments in helping people to get online, and in true Labour style, the review fiercely promotes the idea that digital should be for all. It states:
Everyone should have the opportunity to use the Internet yet 10.5 million adults in the UK either can’t or choose not to. Under the current Government’s plans 10% of the population will still be unable to get online by 2020. Volunteers and the private sector are working together to address this challenge, but the next government should do far more to fund, connect and support these groups to help everyone get access to the Internet. It makes both moral and economic sense to set a far higher target and give everyone the chance of getting online.
In addition, Ofcom (the telecommunications regulator) should investigate whether, and how, government can make sure every home is able to get good Internet access, in the same way that every home can receive post.
As well as existing places like UK Online Centres, government should make its own buildings available to people without internet access or for those who need face-to-face support to use the internet.
This is of course easier said than done – the current government has arguably failed in delivering a competitive and extensive next generation broadband market, with BT owning most of the network. Labour has also really fostered the idea that the services should be 'powered by citizen need', with the review and Onwurah promoting that citizens should have a strong say in how government develops its services. How practical that is is up for debate, but it is a nice idea nonetheless.
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Equally, the focus on local government is an important one. There has been a long debate about the need for a 'local GDS' (a regional version of the Whitehall's Government Digital Service). Labour believes that the answer to this is better collaboration between central and local government, which hasn't been a big priority in recent years, and through the creation of local 'digital factories'. The review argues that these 'digital factories' will deliver solutions to common challenges like planning or waste disposal. It states:
There is a need to catalyse amongst local authorities and their partners a new, small network of ‘local digital factories’ to produce and run as live services modern digital public services based on best service design practice. The method for the service can then serve as a template for others whilst, where possible, the underlying software for the service should be developed as open source so that it can be reused.
For instance a ‘local planning factory’ would be a group of local authorities who wanted to build a better planning service using modern service design principles to cope with a major burst of house building and save money. They work together to design build and run a service in their boroughs, publishing their benefits, savings, code and methodology for others to use or copy.
Onwurah also said at the launch event that the review has taken a “severe approach” to data sharing, which will no doubt be welcomed by privacyadvocates. Following the debacle of care.data, which was going to be a centralised database for GP records and combined with other data, Onwurah is certain that citizens should control their own data. The review focuses heavily on the 'ethics' of handling data and argues that everyone should own and control how their data is used.
Finally, I am also impressed with the review's vision for creating an 'open digital architecture' – which essentially builds on the much touted idea of creating 'government as a platform'. This idea is essentially what the current government has done with GOV.UK, which is Whitehall's publishing platform. GOV.UK is open source, it is flexible and makes use of APIs, which allows it to be repurposed elsewhere. In fact, GOV.UK code is now being used by other governments across the world.
However, Labour wants to take this further and create a common platform that allows government to develop upon and create services, which can then be re-used by other parts of government if it is successful. For example, if a local authority creates an excellent planning service, this same planning service could easily be repurposed by another authority without the need for heavy customisation.
Cause for concern
All of that being said – what is lacking from the Labour review is a much needed focus on commercial requirements. What the current government has done very well is transform procurement in Whitehall. It has introduced frameworks like the G-Cloud and it has set a hard line with large, failing suppliers about what is now expected, with red lines being drawn and some even being threatened with a blacklist.
This is important because it provides a foundation upon for which government builds its technology services. Whilst GDS is great, it can't be a software house for the whole of the public sector and government is always going to need to work with suppliers.
Labour does include a section on procurement in its review and it even recommends building on some of the great work done so far, on such things as the G-Cloud. However, there is a change in tone that concerns me. Right at the end of the procurement chapter, the last couple of paragraphs read:
It will also be necessary to reset the unhealthy antagonistic relationships between government and some suppliers. There are reasons for these poor relationships. As media coverage of government ICT failures amply demonstrate many people were also extremely dissatisfied with the performance of some suppliers and with the performance of politicians and the public sector that managed them.
It is possible to drive a hard bargain while still remaining partners. These recommendations will help improve procurement but we still need to consider public sector skills to help ensure that we have an informed buyer making good decisions and driving these hard bargains.
I strongly believe that this may just mean going back to the way things were. Whilst Labour argues that suppliers want to help provide good public services, I would argue that they like the size of the government cash cow.
And while I agree that the government perhaps went a bit too far with pushing the idea of the 'oligopoly', the hard line it has taken has really changed the supplier landscape. I know from conversations with government insiders that the ones that don't get the new approach have backed away, but the ones that are willing to work with government on how they need to change are getting more work than ever.So yes, whilst the approach may appear 'antagonistic', in my view it has been completely necessary. Just take a look at the failing Universal Credit, where suppliers are essentially receiving cheques for building software that may never end up being used. Introducing controls like 2 year maximum contracts on the G-Cloud and £100 million red lines (maximum budget for new contracts) has forced suppliers to work harder and diversified the supply chain.
And while there is plenty of work for government to do on beefing up its own commercial skills – particularly with regard to its awful contract management – the Crown Commercial Service is trying to improve this.
However, as we have seen with HMRC's longstanding outsourcing Aspire contract, these commercial relationships are tricky and they need a lot of attention. Ultimately the government has a lot of legacy and is still paying lots of money for it, so it can't be ignored. And I am yet to see many answers from Labour.
This is all theoretical at present, Labour hasn't committed to or mandated any of the recommendations made. But if it is going to work from this document, some more thought needs to be paid to the commercial side of the strategy.
Unfortunately, government is doing what it does best – falling into stereotypes and going for headlines. Labour is focusing on social value, which is of course important, but it's very Labour. Whilst the current coalition government (which is dominated by the Conservatives) has focused on the commercial challenges. Labour is great at inclusiveness and bringing benefits to all, whilst the conservatives are good at business.
Why can we not find a middle ground?