It was a tale of three cities. It was the best of times and the worst of times, an age of wisdom and foolishness, an epoch of belief and incredulity… to paraphrase Charles Dickens.
First, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in Northern seaside resort Blackpool on 9 June promising a levelling-up agenda that would, somehow, make mortgages available to people on means-tested Housing Benefit.
On the same day, his part-time technology spokeswoman, full time Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office, Heather Wheeler MP, was in London launching the government’s new digital strategy – at an event beset by technical problems online.
So far, so what? But then a Boris-style desire to be amusing overcame Wheeler in London – the blue mist descended, you might say. The multi-purpose policy maven suddenly went off script and declared:
I was at a conference in Blackpool or Birmingham or somewhere godawful…
Hats off: it takes real genius to stand onstage in the capital and diss two other great British cities for the price of one, while your embattled boss is actually in one of them, trying to rebuild his career. And at the same time, to undermine your own speech and the aims of the national project you’re launching. Staggering.
I mentioned this spectacular own goal on Twitter yesterday. Minutes later, my phone rang and someone from the Cabinet Office explained, in measured tones, that Wheeler’s unscripted comment had been meant as a joke to break the ice and establish rapport with her audience… hardly worth mentioning, in fact (hint hint).
That much was clear, I said, but as an opening salvo on digital inclusivity it was still horribly misjudged. It’s not that people reveal an objective truth in the jokes they make, more that they reveal something of who they are. A problem that dogs this gaffe-prone government.
(BTW, where was full-time Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Nadine Dorries, at the Roadmap’s launch? Did she have something more important to do than publish a national digital strategy designed to make online government more accessible to its citizens?)
A new national roadmap
All this aside, yesterday Whitehall announced a new cross-government plan for digital transformation: The 2022 to 2025 Roadmap for a Digital Future. It aims to “exceed public expectations” (not difficult in the current climate) by creating user-centric policies and public services that are more efficient, fit for the digital age, and centered on user needs. Good news.
Thankfully back on script, Wheeler said:
We've seen first hand over the past two years the necessity to foster the conditions required to be an effective digital government. We've seen how digital can enable us to adapt and respond quickly in order to meet people's needs, launching critical services, providing up-to-date information and supporting the most vulnerable in our society when they need it most. We must build on this work to secure a clear mandate to drive a whole-of-government digital transformation and ensure sustainable implementation.
There are now thousands of digital, data, and technology professionals – like so many of you here today – working across government organizations. Right across government they are using data to inform their decision-making, making use of innovative technology and delivering complex services to citizens.
But we know we can do more. And, more importantly, I know you can do more.
Wait, what, the Civil Service is the reason for the UK’s flatlining productivity? Then Wheeler continued:
The new strategy will improve the way government operates to create a more efficient and effective digital government. The strategy is a milestone, to develop a coherent, joined-up roadmap for digital transformation – one that has been created collaboratively, across government.
Experts from all professions and specialists from across government have fed into this strategy, from data and service design. Experts to permanent secretaries and the heads of functions. The result is a strategy based on what's actually going to make a real difference to the Civil Service and, therefore, the services it provides to the public, day in and day out.
Good stuff, and an excellent speech – if one ignores the unscripted asides. And news of a cross-government alliance of experts collaborating to make government tech as accessible as a banking app is more good news. Especially when one considers that some of Westminster’s responsible ministers have no track record or expertise in technology. At all.
Six missions ahead
As set out on diginomica yesterday, the Roadmap contains six big-picture missions:
- Transformed public services that achieve “the right outcomes for citizens” (namely at least 50 out of 75 online government services moving to a “great” standard)
- One login for government
- Better data to power Whitehall decision-making
- Secure, efficient, and sustainable technology
- Digital skills at scale
- And a system that unlocks digital transformation.
While upbeat, welcome, and doubtless shared by everyone in the country, these headline aims, as expressed, are also deeply vague. Except one: a single login to government services, sponsored – unsurprisingly, perhaps – by HM Revenue & Customs. This would appear to be the real point of the Roadmap: to create a single sign-on to digital government and, behind it, to gather data about citizens and their interactions with public services.
New mobile app
Indeed, the government is launching a new mobile face-scanning app to authenticate users against their photo IDs, such as passports and driving licences. This will be one of the enablers available to citizens for the single sign-on to central government services, and was perhaps inspired by the similar COVID-19 passport.
What the government will do with the growing database of citizens’ faces that results from the app is an interesting question – especially as US company Clearview AI was recently fined £7.5 million by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for scraping images of UK citizens from social media platforms and selling them to clients, without the subjects’ knowledge or permission.
This will be the opposite: a growing, permissioned, government-sanctioned database of selfies. As such, it would appear to be an asset that someone may wish to use or commercialize in the future under the auspices of the National Data Strategy, overseen by an ICO who has been tasked with enabling an entrepreneurial approach. What could possibly go wrong with that?
Some of the six missions offer more granular detail about the government’s plans. For example, the “better data” policy, sponsored by Sir Ian Diamond, national statistician and CEO of the National Statistics Authority, aims to make all critical data assets available – and in use – across government through trusted APIs and platforms.
Another intention is to create access to a “data marketplace” and to co-develop and adopt a single data ownership model for critical data assets. Again, we should flag up the incoming database of citizens’ faces in this context.
The mission for more secure and sustainable technology, sponsored by Laurence Lee, Second Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, aims to promote a “buy once, use many times” approach to tech procurement, via a common code, pattern, and architecture repository, and a common approach to Secure by Design.
All “nationally important” systems will be resilience-tested annually, it says, with plans to identify all red-rated (insecure) legacy technologies. Moreover, the government will “systematically identify and capture opportunities arising from emerging technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, blockchain, and quantum computing”.
Meanwhile, the mission to achieve digital skills at scale, sponsored by Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, aims to “upskill 90% of senior civil servants on digital and data essentials”.
A bold aim indeed when the government has trailed sweeping cuts (91,000 jobs) to the Civil Service. Apparently, more than 6,500 officials will be sent to “digital bootcamps”, according to a press release from the Cabinet Office yesterday.
However, little else in the Roadmap is new, though by naming the sponsors of each mission, the government has at least identified which posteriors to kick if those missions fail. In other words, we will know exactly who to blame, which is a very British take on kick-ass solutions.
To its credit, the government acknowledges that previous Whitehall digital strategies have “lacked specificity, cross-government endorsement, clear lines of accountability and business ownership”. As a result, earlier flagship programmes have “slowly shut down and failed to deliver results”.
This is true, and the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) was launched to remedy this problem by leading digital, data, and technology (DDaT) strategy across the whole of government. It’s the CDDO that’s driving the Roadmap (as it were), though the strategy only applies directly to central departments, and not to the devolved administrations or to local authorities.
It's worth mentioning here that the Industrial Strategy, which was launched and managed under Johnson’s two Conservative predecessors, David Cameron and Theresa May, did achieve results. It galvanized technology investments, forged partnerships across public, private, and academic sectors, and created numerous hubs of excellence. But it was still scrapped, apparently because of internal party gamesmanship.
This remains the core, recurring problem with the Johnson administration - personality comes before party, and party before country, something that leaks out sometimes in unscripted remarks.
Going for growth
That aside, the Roadmap appears to link a number of more focused, individual strategies, such as those for data, artificial intelligence, and digital twins, all of which were launched after the Industrial Strategy was scrapped in favour of the Plan for Growth.
With the OECD yesterday predicting that UK growth will flatline over the next year, this embattled government will need to start providing hard evidence that its policies are delivering positive results, and are not just more “world leading” rhetoric.
Notably, the Roadmap sets out a cross-government vision for digital transformation over the next three years, with a General Election due by January 2025. That timing is unlikely to be coincidental.
Nevertheless, the Roadmap has been written collaboratively by the CDDO and central government departments – predominantly the Home Office, the Treasury, and the Ministry of Defence, who have each put up named sponsors. But again, no mention was made of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, nor of the Secretary of State for DCMS. A conspicuous absence. *(see footnote)
The government said its ambition for the Roadmap is to go beyond “pockets of brilliant practice”, such as the NHS COVID Passport, and deliver a policy that “has a real impact on people’s lives” at all times, and not just in a crisis. More good news. But when are we not in a crisis these days?
Rising to meet these expectations will require change on a scale that “government has never undertaken before,” said Paul Willmott, Executive Chair at the CDDO. He described it as an “ambitious statement of intent”.
It is certainly that, and we must credit the government for it.
But someone should tell Ministers – from the very top downwards – that going off-message to make jokes is a high-risk strategy when your sole purpose is to demonstrate that Britain is a modern, technology-led, digitally-enabled economy. Put simply: the desire to seem whacky and amusing undermines a lot of talented people’s hard work, for no reason whatsoever.
Some of us in the tech sector still cringe at the memory of Prime Minister Johnson telling the United Nations – the whole planet – about cheese, “limbless chickens”, “pink-eyed Terminators” and Alexa “stamping her foot” like an angry girlfriend/wife/mistress/pole-dancing technology consultant. That speech was meant to inspire confidence in post-Brexit Britain and in its clarity of vision for the fourth industrial age.
Instead, thanks entirely to Johnson’s rambling, bizarre, and self-centered performance, the UK appeared a truly odd and dysfunctional place. It’s humiliating that a nation of brilliant innovators and entrepreneurs find themselves undermined in this way.
Still, GOV.UK (Wheeler called it government.uk?) is apparently one of the most popular sites in the UK. It's second only to Love Island, she informed us. Stick to the script, Heather! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STICK TO THE SCRIPT.
* diginomica is aware that DCMS is a different department to the CDDO, which managed creation of the Roadmap. Our point is that a cross-government digital strategy and launch event that did not mention DCMS or the Secretary of State for that department is odd.