The Government Digital Service was launched back in 2011 off the back of a report written by Martha Lane Fox - now Baroness of Soho and founder of Lastminute.com - urging government to centralise its digital efforts.
Now, six years later, Lane Fox has given a speech to the House of Lords warning that the progress made since then is being dismantled and has said that GDS should be recognised as an asset.
She also called on Ministers to recognise their responsibility to understand technology better, given the impact it is having on citizens and society.
The speech opened a debate in the House on digital learning in the UK, where Lane Fox argued that we need to move beyond simply learning digital skills, and instead progress to deeper digital understanding.
For example, she said that whilst almost all people may know how to use a search engine, only half know how to distinguish between search results and adverts.
Lane Fox gave some powerful comments about how certain US platforms are now monopolising the Internet, creating wealth for those who understand how the technology works, but at the expense of people that don’t. She said:
The internet promised us flexible, creative work that could be done anywhere. Again, the internet delivered: today we have the biggest tech industry in Europe, with 1.5 million people employed and nearly £7 billion invested last year alone.
But alongside that we also have Amazon delivery drivers receiving as little as £3 an hour without time for breaks, while CEO Jeff Bezos’ personal wealth surpasses $92 billion. That was enough money to make him the world’s richest man this past summer.
Lane Fox welcomed the government’s recent announcement that it will create a Digital Charter, which she said should allow the UK to “design the moral compass for our digital age”. She hopes that this will encourage each nation to create its own digital charter and then globally commonalities can be found to create a “Geneva Convention for the web”.
Equally, Lane Fox urged organisations such as the Open University and the Citizens Advice Bureau, which she believes are doing good work on ‘digital understanding’, to work more closely together in a more structured way. Lane Fox said:
How about we create a network of public organisations that can more tangibly build our nation’s digital understanding – much of their work is admirable but it is coordination and focus which will embed digital understanding in the fabric of our lives. Perhaps too this network could have a more formal role as a resource for elected and public officials needing support.
A firm warning to Ministers
Lane Fox’s comments on the Government Digital Service will be uncomfortable for the Cabinet Office and technology leaders in government - given she was so central to its creation, back in 2011.
Lane Fox said that it is “vital” that parliamentarian and policymakers “absorb and engage with the realities of how digital technologies work”. On the Government Digital Service, Lane Fox said:
Our Government Digital Service (GDS) has shown how digital understanding can be applied to the world of government, from scrapping our paper car tax discs to simplifying the appointment for power of attorney. It has also shown us what not to do: it saved us £4.1bn by not creating expensive and complicated apps and salvaging doomed projects like Universal Credit.
But the good work being done to help the government modernise – and to make it work for people who live their lives digitally – is being dismantled. Departmental silos are creeping back, replicating cost and inefficiency and, most importantly, letting down citizens.
GDS is celebrated and copied around the world. Last year we were ranked top for digital government by the UN. How ironic if we fail to recognise and nurture this great asset.
The comments follow months of speculation in Whitehall that GDS no longer has the political backing it once had and that the powers that be would rather revert back to the old ways of working (outsourcing responsibilities). There have also been a slew of leadership changes within the department, which has caused concern. Throw in Brexit, which is consuming plenty of civil service resources, and there is potential for the digital progress made this far to be undone.
Lane Fox also made a dig at Ministers, which in recent months have been in the press making outlandish comments about technology - which they clearly know very little about. Lane Fox said that Ministers have a responsibility to learn this stuff. She said:
In recent months we have heard frankly asinine comments such as ‘enough is enough’ or “we must scrap end-to-end encryption” the very system which keeps our personal information secure.
This is alarmist and a disservice to the people we serve. Just as it would not be acceptable for a minister not to understand how her departmental budget works, it is not acceptable for her not to understand how technology affects her brief.
This is not an insurmountable task. We live in 2017, not 1817 – and we have form to follow.
I urge everyone to read the speech in full, it’s incredibly thought provoking and provides a basis for a new conversation around how we as citizens want the Internet to work for us. One line in particular hit home for me, where Lane Fox said:
Difficult or not, this work must be done – and it must be done now. It’s an issue of fairness: it’s simply not fair that only a few people understand this technology, and they are using it to take advantage of billions who do not.