Yet more uncertainty ahead for digital government after minister ousted in election

Amid all the chaos, recriminations and excitement on the morning after the General Election, the future of digital government is far from the minds of anyone other than those of us with a personal interest. But it’s worth remarking on one of the high-profile Conservative losses – Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer lost his Ipswich seat.

No matter how the next government shakes up, this means we will have our third minister in charge of digital government in barely a year, after Gummer succeeded Matt Hancock in Theresa May’s prime ministerial coronation reshuffle in 2016.

It’s no coincidence that the progress of digital transformation across Whitehall has stuttered and stalled in the last couple of years, following five years of consistent leadership from the previous Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude.

Staff at the Government Digital Service (GDS) will no doubt be nervous, after a year when they have already seen their entire leadership team replaced. Gummer was a big supporter of GDS. Will whoever replaces him feel the same way?

After all, any new minister will look at GDS’s books and wonder what is happening to the £3.5bn savings promised when the team was given its £450m budget in the November 2015 spending review. A big chunk of the business case – £1.1bn – was predicated on the Common Technology Services programme, which has been largely mothballed. Another £1.3bn was to come from government-as-a-platform services, which have received a largely lukewarm reception from Whitehall departments, and notably little take-up from the big departments that are needed to justify the business case.

In particular, Gummer was a big supporter of Gov.uk Verify, the GDS-developed identity assurance system – earmarked to provide a further £1.1bn of savings. He even made delivering Verify one of the Tories’ manifesto commitments, repeating the hugely ambitious target of 25 million users by 2020 that was first introduced in the government transformation strategy in February.

It’s difficult to find anyone in GDS willing – or allowed – to talk publicly about Verify, but they are still recruiting people into the team which suggests confidence in its future. It’s very easy, however, to find people outside GDS willing to label Verify as a disaster. Even before the election there was speculation that Verify could be merged with the Government Gateway programme at HM Revenue & Customs – a move that Gummer arguably might have resisted. It’s too soon, of course, to say that his departure would make it more likely.

Judging by early indications, one thing the election result tells us is that young people have engaged with politics in huge numbers. When he launched the transformation strategy, Gummer said he believed that digital could “restore faith in democracy”. Certainly that younger generation will be expecting their government to engage with them using the digital means they consider routine in the rest of their lives.

It is, of course, far more important to get a functioning government in place, one that can address the many economic and global challenges the country faces. But however that comes to pass, any new administration needs to understand that significant and urgent decisions are needed on the future progress of digital government.

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