Public Services

Don't judge a digital book by its cover

David Bicknell Published 30 June 2017

Caroline Nokes has taken on the role of minister with responsibility for GDS. Digital may not be her background, but she could make it her political legacy


I recently read a comment on LinkedIn by Oleg Vishnepolsky. His story - you can read it online, plus the 720 odd likes and 120 comments - was about his commute.

He said, "I commute by train in a quiet coach car where conversations are not allowed. A while back, on the way to work, a phone rings not far from me. A man starts talking on the phone to someone else about trains and timetables. A 2nd man all the way from another side of the coach starts repeating, first softly but then loader and loader - "It is a quiet coach!" - which at this point it is not.

Finally, the 1st man gets off the phone, and says, "Sorry, my son has just been taken to a hospital, and I was taking an advice on how to get back the fastest." Vishnepolsky asked, "Would we not be better off if we did not react and did not judge others? In other words, don't judge a book by its cover."

With that in mind, it might be easy to prejudge Caroline Nokes taking ministerial responsibility for the Government Digital Service (GDS). That she appears to have little obvious digital specialism could prompt suggestions that digital has been downgraded, rather than being a key part of the Cabinet Office minister's agenda. That said, First Secretary of State, Damian Green, will "retain oversight of developments", as he put it.

The fact that Nokes is a former chief executive of the National Pony Society could, in the eyes of some, give the impression that she will have only a passing interest in digital government. It's a ministerial responsibility: no more, no less. Not one to gallop after, you might say.

The recently published Institute for Government report about managing digital government called for the Prime Minister to appoint a minister to lead improvements in digital government. I'll hold my hands up and admit to making a comment at the report's launch that what's needed is not just a minister for Digital Government, but one with some clout. A Francis Maude-like figure, if you like.

So what better opportunity might there be then for Nokes to fully embrace the need for digital government than to get her hands dirty in understanding it? Not paying lip service to it as a Cabinet Office "responsibility" but to see it as a true calling, a springboard for political advancement, even.

Her engagement with GDS and its team, as detailed this week through meetings with GDS director general Kevin Cunnington, as well as Holly Ellis, director of capability for the Digital, Data and Technology Profession, the Service and Design Assurance team, headed by Nic Harrison, and with Louise Downe, deputy director for Service Design and Standards, plus Milan Bogunovic, the service owner for the Digital Marketplace, should just be the start. (Though her head must have been spinning after all those meetings!)

Whatever happens within GDS, Nokes should want to know about it. Indeed, I'll go further, she should know about it before it happens. She should be that connected. (As connected, perhaps as Matthew Gould , the government's first director general for Digital and Media, within DCMS. Gould seems to be very much on some vendors' radar screens when it comes to offering actionable insight into the UK's digital marketplace. I spoke to one this week who'd recently had a useful meeting with him.)

And look at it this way. Although Green is too involved with Brexit to have much of a day-to-day role in digital transformation, he is Theresa May's right hand man. Arguably, access to the top is more straightforward than it has been in the past. When it comes to getting digital transformation on the PM's agenda, if Nokes 'gets' digital, then so might Green, and then, in a more limited way, May. OK, wishful thinking perhaps.

Admittedly, given the government's limited agenda outlined in the Queen's Speech, and its political difficulties, one could gain the impression that only lip service is likely to be paid to digital government and the Government's Transformation Strategy.

But we've already seen in the government's proposals published this week that EU citizens are being asked to make an application to the Home Office for a residence document demonstrating their settled status, that that will be powered by a new online application system due to be up and running in 2018. I'd expect Nokes, Green and indeed May to want to know what progress is being made towards delivery of that system.

I spoke to someone this week who is always acutely familiar with the digital mood music in Whitehall and his perceptive view was that it all feels a bit "rudderless" at the moment, with a need for a clearer direction to emerge.

He astutely pointed out that there doesn't seem to have been much to see for some time now, and that doesn't really fit the earlier 'show the thing' and constant delivery via agile narrative. He argues some announcements soon would help provide encouragement that things are still happening below the surface.

As I said, you should never judge a book by its cover. But if Nokes were writing that book, about digital government and government transformation, I'd like it to demonstrate a real interest, a passion for the subject, to be informed, insightful, and an enabler. Plus an inquiring mind as to what Brexit will mean for departments/GDS in terms of adapting systems, processes, roles to meet whatever comes out of the negotiations.

It's not a one-way street of course. I'd also expect GDS to ensure that it keeps Nokes up to date on developments. After all, if you don't keep your minister informed, you can hardly expect them to go into bat on your behalf.

It's a tough job - but someone's got to do it! And hey, what an opportunity!


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