Public Services

Digital by Delay

David Bicknell Published 12 June 2017

Last Friday's election result that resulted in a 'hung Parliament' risks causing digital transformation paralysis in Whitehall


It has been four months since the launch of the Government Transformation Strategy on February 9. Three weeks later, on March 1, the government's Digital Strategy was similarly launched.

Six weeks later, on April 18, Prime Minister Theresa May chose to go to the country in search of a larger Brexit mandate, triggering a seven week election campaign - and Civil Service purdah.

Even after the election, however, any sense of a need for digital continuity has arguably been lost, given the stark judgement of the electorate and Mrs May's subsequent need to restore a sense of political equilibrium as Brexit talks approach.

For example, the previous Minister for the Cabinet Office (MCO) Ben Gummer, who managed to incorporate a whole chapter on digital government into the Tory manifesto, lost his seat. And the new MCO, Damian Green actually has an arguably more important role as First Secretary of State, leading May's "praetorian guard inside Downing Street" and playing a significant role in coordinating the Brexit negotiations.

Those with close links into government say they are not aware of Green himself having digital fingers. Indeed, according to one knowledgeable source who has previously met him, Green doesn't seem to be a particularly 'digital' sort of person, being yet another PPE "Politics, Philosophy and Economics" type. That said, he could still surprise us. Francis Maude did.

The same well-connected insider believes that with Brexit fast approaching, digital should be high up the agenda. He suggested, "If we're seriously going to leave, someone needs to ensure all the departments are ready to change their systems rapidly, particularly in departments such as the Home Office, HMRC, Defra etc."

But, he believes, most departmental systems can barely handle what they're doing already, let alone cope with major change. By now, he argues, departments should be re-architecting their systems ready to accommodate rapid policy change, but there's no sign of that. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. It's a struggle for some of Whitehall's most influential departments to even get a digital person on their board.

Despite this, vendors, who necessarily must see a wider market picture, have backed the arrival of a significant name at the Cabinet Office.

Chris Price, director, public sector for Computacenter, said, "The appointment of Damian Green is warmly welcome. There has been significant progress since 2010 towards digital government and that must continue. Over the last year, we have seen the appointment of three separate ministers with responsibility for digital.

"For real drive & momentum around digital transformation, we need continuity and we would go further and support calls for the appointment of a Secretary of State with specific responsibility for digital. However, these are clearly challenging times both politically and economically."

He continued, "We must remember that digital shouldn't be seen as separate to these challenges but as an enabler. We're in a global race, as very aptly demonstrated by the President of France who has highlighted digital as a great opportunity for France and has appointed a Minister for Digital. The UK must retain its place as a global leader in its approach to digital government."

Although the idea of a senior official with responsibility for digital is clearly in vogue - the Institute for Government called towards the end of the election campaign for a Minister for Digital Government - let's be honest, few are expecting much in terms of ramped up digital engagement in Whitehall, for now at least. That said, Matt Hancock was at least last night reappointed as Minister of State for Digital and Culture at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The reality is, however, that digital isn't the main game in town. It's Brexit. And potentially, for May, it's exit. If there is no "digital wizard" to be plugged into the Cabinet Office to support Green, then, in the words of one sage, "it suggests at the top table that digital is being seen as a side-show, not the way government needs to be redesigned and run."

The "transformation strategy" with all its ambitions to make better use of data, appoint a chief data officer for government and make better use of GOV.UK Verify will continue, rather like a middle-lane hugging motorway driver. But what's needed is some urgent acceleration and drive.

GlobalData Public Sector principal analyst Rob Anderson says, "The Government Transformation Strategy was mostly a restatement of activities that were already underway, and will mostly continue unaffected by political turmoil. However, to drive the more controversial of policies, such as pushing Verify as the single identity assurance platform across government, requires a strong central character (a la Francis Maude).

"There is no evidence to suggest that Damian Green will take on that mantle. One possibility would be to appoint a junior minister with appropriate credentials to manage the digital programme within the Cabinet Office. If this doesn't happen, then there is a real danger of GDS further haemorrhaging senior management and losing more credibility with operational departments, which will cause any coherent digital strategy to unravel."

Anderson's colleague, chief analyst Jessica Figueras, agrees. "In a sense, it's utterly irrelevant who is the Cabinet minister right now, as digital government will be number 100 or lower on their priority list (numbers 1-99 are Brexit and/or keeping the minority government functioning). The government may not even last beyond June. To the extent that government ministers are thinking about digital at all, it will be to avoid risky projects rather than to look at opportunities."



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