Public Services

Whitehall must address lack of digital leadership post-Maude, think-tank argues

Neil Merrett Published 07 June 2017

Institute for Government (IFG) calls for digital government minister to be in place post election to force more concentrated Whitehall transformation approach

 

A specific minister for digital government should be appointed after the general election to address a perceived lack of "visible political leadership" since the departure of Francis Maude as Cabinet Office Minister in 2015, the Institute for Government has argued.

In a blogpost to coincide with the final days of electioneering before polling, Daniel Thornton, the thinktank's programme director focused on the Civil Service has been critical of the lack of clear leadership and vision for digital government in Whitehall.

Francis Maude headed up the Cabinet Office during the coalition government between 2010 and 2015, and was seen as a champion of reforms around technology procurement and the formaiton and ongoing work of the Government Digital Service (GDS).

Since his departure from the role, Matt Hancock and most recently Ben Gummer have been responsible for the Cabinet Office, helping steer the future direction for focuses such as common platforms, ongoing procurement reform and data initiatives.

Citing months of delays to the publication of the Government Transformation Strategy that was published in February that outlined, and somewhat reaffirmed broad commitments to digital service provision in whitehall, Thornton expressed concern about a perceived lack of specific timelines and transformation priorities for dealing with potential challenges from Brexit.

"Big decisions, such as about which system to use for verifying citizens' identity across government, have been ducked. Unlike their predecessors, Theresa May and Chancellor Philip Hammond have not spoken about digital government," said Thornton in the post.

"Together with comments by Amber Rudd about 'necessary hashtags,' it seems that senior ministers are not taking a keen interest in digital government."

Another concern noted by the thinktank has been the application of security standards in the public sector that are set out by the Cabinet Office, with the IFG arguing that more must be done to ensure they are being taken up by authorities.

"The consequences of the lack of leadership are clear. For several days in May, patients were turned away and appointments and operations were cancelled across the NHS, because computers using out of date Windows software were infected with the WannaCry ransomware," wrote Thornton.

Since Maude stood down from the cabinet before the last General ELection, there has been a significant number of departures from GDS' senior management in recent years, not least former GDS executive director Mike Bracken and later his successor, Stephen Foreshew-Cain.

Bracken, seen as the key driver of some of GDS' most visible changes, such as the GOV.UK publishing platform and the ongoing development of a number of common tools, spent four and a half years leading the organisation, with Foreshew-Cain stepping down less than a year later.

The organisation is presently led by Kevin Cunnington, brought in to head up GDS from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). He has largely sought to reaffirm many of the organisation's key pledges.

In a blog post published following the unveiling of the new Government Transformation Strategy, which sets out GDS' work in the wider context of Whitehall reform - as opposed to a standalone focus as originally promised last year - Cunnington argued that it was accepted knowledge of the need to embed digital transformation deeper into government than ever before.

"We've already demonstrated the potential for the digital transformation of public services through the work carried out under the 2012 strategy. We've redesigned and rebuilt some of the most used services, including Register to vote, View driving licence and Carer's Allowance," he said.

"For the first time, digital professions have been established across the public sector, increasing our capability in this crucial area. And strong foundations have been laid for departments to share digital platforms, components, code and best practice for building user-focused services."

To varying degrees, the UK key parties have made separate concessions with regard to digital and technology approach in government - although there has been no specific commitments by any for a septic leader to take command of digital government beyond the existing GDS remit of the Cabinet Office Minister.

R elated articles:

Conservative Party manifesto highlights cyber, digital and data ethics initiatives

Labour manifesto sets sights on Universal Credit and STPs

Cunnington: "Very concrete" plans mapped for 25m user Verify expansion

Mike Bracken to join the Co-op as chief digital officer

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