Government digital strategy ticks the boxes - but real transformation needs more radical ambition

The long wait for the new government digital strategy may have caused frustration in some places, but clearly within the Cabinet Office the extensive delays have brought expectations to a peak of frenzy.

The plan – now renamed the government transformation strategy – is billed as “the most ambitious programme of change of any government anywhere in the world” by minister Ben Gummer.

It will be carried out “at pace and scale”, said Government Digital Service (GDS) chief Kevin Cunnington, and will “deliver meaningful change to the people who need it most, faster and more efficiently”.

Moreover, the strategy will “restore faith in our democracy” and fix “the interface between government and the people [which] has become increasingly fraught”, according to Gummer.

Wow. Who needs elections?

In a masterpiece of mixed metaphor, Gummer further went on to label Cunnington, the man charged with leading this once-in-a-lifetime democratic transformation, as the “Che Guevara of digital”.

This is all lovely rhetoric for journalists to chew on, but to paraphrase one of Cunnington’s predecessors, the strategy will be judged on delivery. Let’s not forget that GDS told us in 2013 that it had “400 days to change government”. This is not the first time we’ve been here.

There is little in the objectives of the strategy to criticise – as a statement of where digital government is in the UK, and where it now needs to go, it makes perfect sense.

The plan identifies five core areas: a back-office technology overhaul; developing digital skills; better IT for civil servants; better use of data; and creating shared platforms.

None of these are new, none of them are easy. All of them have – in some shape or form – been tried before, and have yet to be delivered. So perhaps the key question for this strategy is not what it aims to do, but what it will do differently to make it happen.

The plan is peppered with statements like “culture change” and “collaboration”. Gummer admitted publicly for the first time that troubled relations between GDS and departments – especially the Department for Work and Pensions – has been a hindrance in the past that has to be rectified. To his credit, admitting past problems is the first step to overcoming them, and he’s working on that.

Within each of those five core areas you can write a long list of challenges to overcome, raising questions about the feasibility of delivering the transformation strategy by 2020, its stated aim.

But the one hurdle that more than any other stands in the way of success is the same issue that has frustrated GDS leaders for years – the inertia and cultural resistance to change of the siloed and institutionalised civil service structure.

Gummer understands the problem and hopes that the need to save money and deliver on departmental plans will mean his strategy receives a positive welcome across Whitehall. We have to hope he is right, this time. One of his recent predecessors, Francis Maude, forced departments to work with GDS by bashing heads together – Gummer seems more collaborative – but once Maude left, the civil service reverted to type.

The ambition in the strategy is to be welcomed, but perhaps its biggest flaw is that it is not ambitious enough, nor transformational enough.

Former digital economy minister Ed Vaizey said what many people are thinking, in an interview with the Institute for Government published the day before the strategy was launched.

“I would completely re-engineer government. I would abolish government departments, I would have government by task,” he said.

If you really want to transform government through digital means, Vaizey is right – you do away with existing structures and hierarchies and start from the question of what is best for the citizen.

GDS – and the strategy itself – stress the importance of “user need”. But user need is still defined by the requirements of the civil service first, not of citizens. When developing a new digital service – choose one, whether carer’s allowance or Universal Credit or digital tax or any other – “user need” starts from the perspective of the department that owns the service and how its delivery is structured internally.

If you really start from user/citizen need, you don’t have fixed departmental structures. You start from how a citizen wants to interact with public services – and add the fact that for most citizens, that includes local government.

In reality, the transformation called for by the new strategy is a transformation in the way Whitehall departments work together – with the important digital stardust sprinkled on top – and little more. It relies on departments being nicer to each other (and to GDS) than they have at times in the past. It needs the Treasury to allow departmental budgets to be shared, and permanent secretaries to be incentivised to look beyond their role as accounting officer, and to be jointly responsible for delivery of services that are integrated between departments, not siloed within them.

That’s not a fundamental top-to-bottom, root-and-branch transformation of the way government engages with citizens, by any measure. It’s more of a “come along now, chaps, let’s all play nicely” strategy. But perhaps for Whitehall, that really would be a transformation.

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