SPRINT15 - be bold, not breathless for digital government

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan February 3, 2015
Five years ago Martha Lane-Fox kick-started the digital transformation of the UK government. Today, she's pleased but wants to move faster.

I like government. I think government’s pretty incredible.

Election 2015

So says, Martha Lane-Fox, Baroness of Soho, who back in June 2010, was appointed by UK Prime Minister David Cameron to the new role of Digital Champion.

Then best known as the co-founder of LastMinute.com, she had a roving brief to advise on the changes needed for online delivery of public services.

Four months later, that challenge resulted in a letter to the Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude in which Lane-Fox made a number of key recommendations, one of which resulted in the formation of the Government Digital Service.

Yesterday, with GOV.uk now replacing 300 individual government websites and eight of the biggest transactional services - such as paying tax and registering to vote - now online, Lane-Fox offered up her thoughts on progress to date at the SPRINT15 gathering in London:

If you look at the number of people accessing government services online in 2010 and the number of people using them now, it is unrecognisable. You couple that with the savings that you’re taking out and it’s a very happy balance. If you had all of the savings and no usage, that would be a pretty big disaster. And if you’d had all of the usage and no savings, that would also be a pretty big disaster.

But there’s still a lot of work to do, she added:

We still have a huge challenge of universality, both in terms of infrastructure and the vision of that infrastructure. So it’s about not just making sure that everyone has the ability to watch Netflix at good speeds, but also that we have the ability to do things that we don’t know we’re going to yet in five or ten years time. That’s far from being a given at the moment.

What now?

Her recommendation today to GDS and the wider public sector is simple:

It’s got to be more of the same. Strategy is delivery - that’s absolutely right. That’s not overwhelmingly inspiring if you’re outside government, but it is pretty inspiring if you are in government because too often my perception was that the strategy in government was to produce more paper. Or hugging another policy. Or creating another department. Actually the strategy should be to do stuff that changes people’s lives. How incredible is that to be given as a strategy?

Lane-Fox drew on her experiences from the private sector as a board director of high street retailer Marks & Spencer to provide an analogy of how digital transformation goes beyond technology:

It’s always the same with digital projects. We talk about this digital world as an add-on. We’ve got to improve the website, we’ve got to create new products and services.

But actually what’s happening is that every single process in an organisation that feels, surprise surprise, a lot like the civil service - because it was created in 1884, it’s got a national sense of institution to it - everything is being broken down by digital. The website is one bit of that. But you put that into the heart of an organisation that’s being completely changed to be fit for purpose.

Martha Lane Fox
Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho

Such widespread change can be frightening of course, but Lane-Fox is unrepentant in her call for a heightened speed of change:

I don’t get breathless about the pace of change because it’s still not fast enough. It took Facebook ten months to reach 50 million users after the radio took 38 years. We have to move at a speed that feels so terrifying that it’s not breathless, it’s panting. I feel more anxious about keeping up the pace than about looking back and thinking that was fast.

At the end of the day, it comes back to her philosophy on government as much as anything else:

I like government. I think government’s pretty incredible. It catches stuff that people don’t want to do, that people cannot do and is fundamental in producing services and looking after people. I’m not trying to get rid of government. Quite the opposite - I want to make it work more effectively and more engaged with its users.

And perhaps not always from the standpoint that government knows best. There’s a whole load of knowledge out there that government could use to improve and increase the usage of its services. I don’t see it as either or between no government at all, but as a natural progression of how government will move on. It seems to me that the world of ‘broadcast government and ‘we know best’ is over.

Her final rallying cry (for now) to government is simple:

I come back often in my life to a quote from Goethe: boldness has genius, power and magic to it. Continue to be bold. Otherwise you won’t get nearly as far as you need to.

My take

Rightly praised for her work repeatedly throughout the SPRINT15 event by various speakers. A lady to whom we owe a debt.

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