Privacy Shield is no solution for data protection - EU should put personal data in the hands of its citizens

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Many US and European businesses no doubt breathed a sigh of relief when the European Commission announced it had agreed a basis for replacing the defunct Safe Harbour data protection agreement with the US government.

Now we have a Privacy Shield in place to ensure that European citizens' personal data is subject to comparable data protection principles when transferred into a US-located database. At least, that's the theory.

However, as privacy campaigners point out, there seems little more to the new arrangement than a letter from America promising that EU residents' data will not be subject to mass surveillance. "Honest it won't," said a draft of the letter. "We really promise, pinky swear, that we won't use it for mass surveillance. Because hey, we don't do mass surveillance anyway! (Hey Chuck, do you think they'll notice we had our fingers crossed?)"

OK, maybe that's not what the letter said after all. But given the US government's attitude to data privacy, a nicely worded note might not prove to be the basis for a lasting and secure agreement.

"A couple of letters by the outgoing Obama administration is by no means a legal basis to guarantee the fundamental rights of 500 million European users in the long run, when there is explicit US law allowing mass surveillance," wrote campaigner Max Schrems, whose legal case brought about the demise of Safe Harbour.

But the underlying problem has not been addressed - that current approaches to data protection remain a 20th century attempt to solve a very 21st century problem; analogue solutions in a digital world.

Data protection laws are entirely predicated on the assumption that corporations and governments hold all our personal data, and are thereby granted conditional rights to use that data as they wish. It's based on the concept that all the data that matters is held in big databases, somewhere apart from the person whose data has been collected.

The UK Data Protection Act, for example, says that we have the right to see a copy of the information that an organisation holds about us and how it is being used - but only if we ask nicely in writing and pay a fee.

How quaint. Surely the digital solution is the right to log in to an organisation's website and see all our data and how it is being used - and moreover, to be able to edit or remove it if we wish?

Data protection remains a database-centric approach to regulation, when the "digital way" is data-centric - a very important distinction. Data-centric means that laws and IT systems start from the data itself, not from a centralised place in which that data is aggregated with everyone else's.

There has been a lot of discussion about personal data stores - still an emerging technology that allows us to hold all our relevant information in a location controlled by us, from which we set the rules and permissions about who can access our data and for what purpose. It's the data equivalent of an online bank account, which is where we control who can take our money and for what purpose.

This data-centric approach puts control in the hands of the individual and negates the need for international data protection agreements because if you're happy for your data to be accessed or stored by a US company, that's your decision. You might trust Google, but not Facebook - the choice should be yours.

If all you want is to allow access for the purpose of a single transaction, you could say that too - so the company uses a copy of the data to complete the transaction, then deletes it. Maybe if they offer you a good discount, you might be willing to let them keep a copy for a while? After all, why should a company's desire for data analytics to better target its marketing at you be a reason for them to keep all your data as they see fit? The choice should be yours.

The Safe Harbour / Privacy Shield row only serves to show that legislators are a very long way from understanding the potential to put control of our data back into our own hands. A truly digital solution would be to legislate for the introduction of technology - whether personal data stores or something else - to make that happen. The choice should be yours.

Google tax debate is just an early example of social upheaval from the digital revolution

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In many ways it is a shame that the most likely reason for a technology company to hit the headlines in national newspapers and on TV is because they don't pay enough taxes.

For all the largely justified criticism of Google's £130m tax settlement with the UK government, surely most people in the technology community would rather be reading about the great innovations from Google et al, and how they are changing the way we live and work for the better (mostly).

But the tax argument is nonetheless one that demonstrates the scope of the technological disruption facing society and how the digital revolution will force governments, companies and individuals to re-evaluate many of the old norms we have taken for granted.

At its heart, the Google tax debate rests on an accounting principle, not a technical one - the ability for country subsidiaries of a multinational corporation to charge for services between those subsidiaries in order to shift the point of profit to a lower-tax regime. It surely can't be beyond law makers to legislate to restrict those internal transfer fees so that profits are more accurately recorded at the point of consumption for goods and services, not of delivery.

But until technology made it so easy to split consumption and delivery of digital services, it was barely an issue.

When Apple launched the mobile app era in 2008, who could have predicted that one outcome just eight years later would be French taxi drivers on strike and burning tyres on a Paris ring road because a piece of software - Uber - is threatening their livelihoods?

For all the excitement about the great innovations we are using and those yet to be created, it's almost impossible to predict the true social and business impact they will have - only that there will be huge upheavals as we absorb these new capabilities into our lives.

We hear plenty of scaremongering about the potential effects of robots and artificial intelligence, but think too about more mundane developments like the internet of things and how that could empower individuals like never before with information about the world around them.

Governments and legislators will always react too slowly even with so much evidence of the pace of digitally inspired social change in front of them. There are digital King Canutes everywhere - but a disturbing concentration of them among our leaders, even as they hope for the glory by association that comes from close involvement with digital innovators - look at David Cameron and George Osborne's very public fondness for Google.

The only certainty is that taxation will not be the only social tenet that is challenged by technological change in the years ahead. As a society, we need to be prepared for further upheavals that few are likely to predict.

We need coordination between old economy job cuts and digital economy job creation

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BT has one of its main contact centres in a tower block in Swansea city centre - it's the highest office building for miles around, just a short stroll to the sea front. From its upper-floor windows you can see across Swansea Bay to the lights and smoke from the giant steel works in neighbouring Port Talbot.

Today we've heard that BT is creating 100 jobs in that Swansea office. We also learned that, sadly, Tata is culling 750 jobs at its steel plant across the bay.

If ever there was a situation that demonstrated the benefits of better co-ordination around old-economy job losses and digital economy job creation, it's exemplified in that South Wales microcosm.

I have no idea how much steelworkers earn compared to BT call centre workers, but it's certain there will be no local demand for unemployed people with steelwork skills. Surely it's not that difficult to put some of those redundant Port Talbot staff in touch with BT tomorrow? With some training and new skills, 100 people could move from a declining industry to a growing one.

This is a scenario that will be replicated across the country over the coming years.

We also heard today from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos that its research suggests seven million jobs could be lost as a result of technological developments in major economies in the next five years, part of what WEF calls the "fourth industrial revolution".

Meanwhile, the European Commission tells us that Europe needs to find a further 900,000 skilled IT workers by 2020.

It's getting a bit boring writing about this - see here and here, for recent examples - but surely it is not that difficult to achieve some form of co-ordination to take people losing their jobs in one industry and retrain them with skills needed in the technology sector?

You would like to think the government might do so - but there's no evidence the current UK government has any inclination for such an initiative. You would hope at least that local authorities could team up in their regions to make something happen - but most are focused elsewhere and struggling under austerity cuts. It would be nice to think that big business might take an interest - they stand to benefit, after all. But nothing happens.

We talk endlessly about skill shortages in IT when the truth is we have a training shortage - both in training new entrants from other industries, and in training existing people in IT with the new digital skills that are most in demand today.

Almost every time I write something about IT skills shortages I hear in response from an out-of-work IT expert complaining that they can't find a job - often it's because their skills are different from those being recruited by IT employers today. They could do with help in retraining too.

Wouldn't it be great if someone picked up the phone at the BT office in Swansea - it is a call centre after all, there are plenty of telephones there - and put in a local call to HR at Tata steelworks about those jobs.

Wouldn't it be even better if there was somewhere every redundant worker could go to be retrained in digital economy skills and help them find a job with a future?

The government's patrician approach to privacy risks a spiral into ever greater surveillance

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It must be 15 years since the first time I wrote the phrase, "Privacy will be one of the defining challenges of the internet age". In the intervening years, that challenge has grown enormously.

Allied with privacy is trust, and it's clear nobody trusts a word the government has to say on the subject. Home secretary Theresa May's recent appearance in front of a committee of MPs examining her Investigatory Powers Bill showed as much.

She insisted that the UK government does not conduct mass surveillance of its citizens, for example, provoking widespread cynicism across social media in the light of Edward Snowden's revelations about GCHQ snooping.

May also insisted that government has no plans to ban encryption or legislate for the introduction of backdoors. However, she did say that companies would be expected to act on a lawful warrant ordering the disclosure of data to the authorities - something that many providers who offer end-to-end encryption would find very difficult, if not impossible.

There is widespread agreement that security services need to access internet data to help keep the UK safe. The challenge, of course, is where to draw the line between necessary surveillance and acceptable levels of privacy.

Law enforcement inevitably feels that the loss of privacy is worth it. An FBI cyber security expert recently told me exactly that - ensuring security is a price worth paying and citizens should accept that governments will be able to store, access and analyse their data. But he would say that, wouldn't he? Such an attitude will make most of us feel deeply uncomfortable.

The more authoritarian that governments become in their surveillance, the more the technology community will find ways to protect people from such intrusion - new forms of encryption, additional layers of data security - that makes it harder to intercept our data, and in turn makes governments introduce even more extreme legislation.

There is a real danger of an ongoing spiral into ever greater surveillance powers.

The Investigatory Powers Bill will be an important landmark but will not be the end of the privacy debate. As individuals, inevitably, become more security aware and technologies emerge to give us more control over who can see our data and what they can do with it, this will become an ever more personal issue for all of us.

Governments will need to be less patrician about how they approach privacy and surveillance, and do more to earn our trust. They can be sure that technology will give us all much greater control of our data, and without that trust the essential work of the security services only becomes harder.

Will 2016 be the year we find out which 'traditional' IT suppliers survive the digital revolution?

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The combined revenue of the five biggest global corporate IT suppliers declined by more than $12bn over their past four financial quarters - at a time when the use of technology worldwide is booming.  

That $12bn isn't money that has disappeared from the market - it's simply being spent elsewhere. A growing number of IT leaders are turning to new sources of innovation - whether from startups, fast-growing firms in emerging technology areas such as cloud, or greater use of open source and in-house resources.

So perhaps the biggest question for 2016 is whether the traditional IT suppliers - the ones you formerly couldn't get sacked for buying from - are able to reverse that slide by proving they can compete in a new digital world. If not, then by the end of this year we may be preparing a series of corporate obituaries for their slow, inexorable, inevitable declines.

Look at the corporate structures of some of these old behemoths and read their marketing messages - it's all product, product, product. Yet there has rarely been a time when IT leaders are less interested in the latest product.

For most of the history of corporate IT, change has been driven by the newest products from the big suppliers. You all remember the acronyms - ERP, CRM, BPM and all the others. Each represented a new wave of software products, and a new source of income for their suppliers. Microsoft Windows was always the classic example - product sales driven by whenever Microsoft decided to release a new version.

That's left many of those suppliers in the unenviable position of spending most of their multibillion-dollar research and development budgets on simply developing new functionality for their existing products - and their sales reps forced to push those products endlessly.

As a result, the amount of genuine innovation coming from those companies has dwindled - how many game-changing technologies have they produced in the last five years? And they all missed cloud, mobile, big data, social media - and will miss many future trends too.

The balance of power has changed, but traditional IT suppliers are having the same conversations with IT leaders they were 10 years ago. Those IT chiefs - dependent as they are on the suppliers' legacy systems, for now - listen politely, but increasingly take their transformational digital spending elsewhere.

Some observers would say it's already too late for many IT dinosaurs - and in some cases, they're right. But there is no doubt the clock is ticking and the asteroid is approaching for all of them. By the end of this year, the purchasing decisions of IT leaders will give us a clearer view of their fate.

GDS must respond openly and honestly to NAO criticism

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MPs are often at their most lyrically creative when they sit on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and are given free rein to criticise those they see as miscreants wasting taxpayers' money.

So this week we saw yet another problem IT project under scrutiny, described as "some form of a Greek tragedy" and a senior government IT chief labelled as "Mr Fancypants".

We also saw an unprecedented interjection from the head of the National Audit Office (NAO), Amyas Morse, stressing how serious and unusual it was for the NAO to criticise the personal behaviour of senior individuals involved in the project.

The programme in question was the new digital service for the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), which was suspended earlier this year in favour of paper forms, is now 40% over budget and risks costing the UK millions more in EU fines.

We're all depressingly used to reading NAO reports critical of government IT projects, and much of the findings were repetitively familiar for anyone that has read similar reports over the years. But the most disturbing thing is that by now it was meant to be different.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) was not alone in receiving criticism from the NAO and nor can it be solely to blame. But for all the good things GDS has done elsewhere, the RPA project was the first and biggest programme with the sort of complexity long associated with government IT, that GDS was brought in to resolve.

Indeed, previous RPA projects that failed expensively were held up as precisely the sort of thing GDS would ensure never happened again. Yet here, GDS's involvement seemed only to make the situation worse.

Last week, the NAO also reported on the failed e-Borders project - an initiative that first went wrong before GDS was created. But problems still continue around the replacement for the UK's ageing border systems, and while the NAO did not specifically mention GDS's more recent involvement, insiders say that borders sits alongside RPA as the sort of failure that was not meant to happen now GDS is on the scene. The NAO report will be discussed by PAC next week - expect more lyrical fireworks.

GDS has just received £450m to drive the digital transformation of government, and will be a major influence in the £1.8bn given to Whitehall departments for the same purpose. This is, of course, a good thing.

But RPA and e-Borders have raised serious questions about GDS's capabilities in more complex digital projects, as well as highlighting the lack of digital skills across the whole civil service.

GDS likes to be open about its successes, but has too often kept quiet about its failures. With billions of pounds of taxpayers' cash to be spent on digital projects in the next five years, GDS needs to show that it has learned the painful lessons of RPA and e-Borders, and to do so publicly and honestly.

All of us need to play our part to influence the role of technology in the UK economy

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Influence is a wonderfully subjective measure by which to gauge successful people in the UK technology scene.

Influence can be negative as well as positive. You might be influenced by a particular IT leader, while others may see the same person as thoroughly lacking the quality.

But there is little doubt that influence is key to growing the UK's digital economy - influence over politicians, over boardrooms, business strategies, regulators, investment decisions, skills and recruitment; all of these are needed for technology to expand its own influence on UK growth and public service delivery.

Not everyone agrees with the choice of Computer Weekly's readers and our expert panel of independent judges that BT CEO Gavin Patterson is the most influential person in UK IT over the next 12 months - and in these days of social media, they're happy to tell us so. But plenty of people agree completely, too.

BT has often been a source of controversy and generates strong opinions, but as the UK's biggest indigenous technology company you can't deny its influence. We think that the Ofcom review of the UK communications market and its potential effect on BT will be one of the most significant events of 2016, critical to the future of the digital economy and our mobile and broadband ecosystem. Others feel differently - and that's great.

Every year we hope to stimulate debate with the latest UKtech50 list of the most influential people in UK IT, because this is a debate that affects us all. While the influence of technology in the UK economy has grown inexorably and inevitably, there is still much more to do.

We need to be talking about how to influence public policy and corporate strategy to take advantage of the digital revolution. We need to discuss how technology is changing society for good and for ill; about how our personal data should be used and protected; about the boundaries between privacy and security. And we need role models to lead the way and to encourage more people to join the profession to make sure we have the skills needed to make the UK a world leader.

We're proud to laud Gavin Patterson as the most influential person in UK IT, but the other 49 people on the list are just as important, as are thousands of others making decisions every day on the future of technology. Between us, let's make the tech community the most influential voice it can be.

GDS gets a £450m budget boost - and a £3.5bn incentive to prove digital really works

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Even people close to the Government Digital Service (GDS) seem surprised - pleasantly so - by the announcement of a £450m budget over the rest of this Parliament.

While it's still not clear exactly how that cash will be allocated, it's a far cry from expectations in the months leading up to chancellor George Osborne's spending review. From the gloom and despondency of the summer when former GDS chief Mike Bracken and his senior lieutenants quit amid rumours of huge cuts, GDS has received its biggest ever budget boost and a commitment for the next four years.

As recently as September, GDS executives were expecting to be "turning down the volume". Osborne just turned it up to 11.

Assuming the £450m runs from the 2016 to 2020 financial years, that's a 94% increase from the most recent £58m a year. And in a further surprise, that GDS budget is in addition to the £1.8bn allocated by Osborne for digital transformation across Whitehall departments - early assumptions were that GDS was part of that figure.

So Osborne has given significant backing to both GDS and the wider digital programme across government - but now the pressure is really on to deliver the promise of digital change. For that £450m, Computer Weekly has learned that GDS is expected to return at least £3.5bn in savings; HM Revenue & Customs is spending £1.3bn on its digital strategy and must return £1bn every year in additional tax revenue.

The government has claimed big savings from digital during the last Parliament - Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock mentions a figure of £3.5bn. But that's a highly contentious claim - for one thing, it's compared to a "2010 baseline", meaning it is money that would have been spent if government still worked like it did in 2010 under Labour.

Some of the savings are clearly genuine - costs a lot less to run than the multitude of websites it replaced - but much is clever accounting. For example, £600m of savings in 2014/15 was attributed to the spending controls introduced by GDS. But what that's actually saying is - "Someone wanted to spend £100m on an IT project, we said no, and they spent £20m instead; therefore we saved £80m". It's not a "saving" in terms of reducing the amount of money government used to spend - it's a saving compared to what it would have spent if the controls did not exist.

GDS is working on a new business plan, expected by the end of the year, which will give more detail on how that £450m will be spent. But there can no longer be any doubt about this government's commitment to a strong centre for digital government, technology and data - a commitment questioned in August by Mike Bracken, and which led to his departure.

GDS and its digital advocates have said all along that the potential benefits are huge - they now have four years to prove it.

Software is never perfect - and that includes the Post Office's controversial Horizon system

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Software goes wrong. Every developer knows that. Even the most thoroughly tested piece of software can come up with an unexpected set of circumstances that cause it to behave in an equally unexpected way. Sometimes those unique cases can be so unusual, they are impossible to replicate.

It is difficult to believe that any large-scale, complex software application is entirely and completely free of any possible flaws arising from unforeseen circumstances, no matter how well it performs in the vast majority of usage.

This, essentially, is at the heart of the ongoing dispute between subpostmasters and the Post Office over its Horizon IT system.

The Post Office has consistently said there are no systemic flaws in Horizon, and certainly none that would have caused the accounting discrepancies that led to subpostmasters receiving fines and even jail terms for alleged false accounting.

The organisation has pointed out that affected postmasters are a "tiny" proportion of the number who use it successfully to process millions of transactions every day.

And in turn, that is exactly the point that campaigners make in response - that all it takes is a tiny number of unexpected, unusual circumstances that perhaps cannot be replicated. There are about 11,500 sub-Post Offices in the UK, and just 150 subpostmasters in the Post Office mediation scheme - that's 1.3% - although many others claimed to have been affected.

Many businesses would be pretty happy with a 98.7% success rate for its core software - but all it takes is just one of thousands of otherwise successful transactions for each of those 150 people to have had a problem, which would mean an even lower failure rate.

The Post Office says, "The Post Office takes its responsibilities towards its postmasters extremely seriously and wholeheartedly rejects any suggestion to the contrary.

"Neither the Post Office nor other parties have identified any transactions caused by a technical fault in Horizon which have resulted in a postmaster wrongly being held responsible for a loss."

And they are correct - none have been identified in those cases. But that doesn't necessarily mean that in 0.013% of sub-Post Offices, there wasn't some undetected, unrepeatable problem that affected Horizon - user error, a power spike, a momentary hardware glitch, coffee spilled on a keyboard.

This week, Computer Weekly revealed the Post Office knows about a recent flaw that can cause accounting errors, and it's being fixed. So it is possible for a problem in Horizon to occur that could lead to a similar situation to that faced by the affected postmasters. But, as the Post Office stresses, there is no evidence to show that it did so in their specific cases.

The lesson for all is that no organisation should assume that its software is perfect.

Spending review: GDS continues but big cuts ahead in Cabinet Office

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The Cabinet Office is set for higher than average budget cuts in next week's spending review, while the future of the Government Digital Service (GDS) appears to be secure - but smaller.

Chancellor George Osborne announced this week that seven more departments have agreed their spending review settlement with the Treasury - the Department for Energy and Climate Change, the Department for Work and Pensions, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the Cabinet Office, and the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland offices.

But according to an email sent to staff by Civil Service chief executive and Cabinet Office permanent secretary John Manzoni, his department is going to be hit harder than the others.

"The chancellor has announced an average reduction of 21% across the seven departments. In reality the final settlement for the Cabinet Office could be higher than 21% and this will be detailed in the Spending Review next week," said the email.

Another Manzoni email said: "We will need to be smaller, which means also considering how and when to exit some of our people."

He has previously said that, "The good stuff happens when you put great people out in the departments. It doesn't happen when you put great people in the centre," so it seems that the spending review is the catalyst for that shrinking of the Cabinet Office.

It appears that GDS has had its core budget agreed and will continue - despite speculation to the contrary over the summer when its former chief Mike Bracken announced his surprise resignation.

But GDS will have to take its share of the wider Cabinet Office cuts. Insiders suggest those cuts "could bite quite hard" but the details are under wraps until after Osborne's autumn statement on 25 November.

GDS's budget for the year to March 2015 was £58.345m. The biggest chunk of that was allocated to the website, which received £17.1m. has completed the costliest and most resource intensive phase of its development - the migration of all government and agency websites - and is now in more of an ongoing maintenance mode, so its budget seems feasible to be reduced.

GDS has always carried a large number of contractors on short, fixed-term contracts - 210 of them, compared to 425 full-time staff - so an obvious response would be to let those contracts naturally expire and not to replace them, protecting permanent civil servants from the worst of any cuts.

The full post-spending review business plan for GDS is expected to be published in December.

According to an article on the Spend Matters website, the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) - also part of the Cabinet Office - is already planning for job cuts. Matt Denham, commercial delivery director, reportedly told a procurement event in London earlier this month that changes in CCS will see its strategic category management team reduced by half from its current 270 staff.

My bet is that Osborne will highlight digital transformation as one of the key elements of meeting his ambitious austerity targets - probably singling out HMRC's plan to shut 137 offices and move to 13 regional centres by 2021 as an example, a move enabled by its digital strategy.

As such, GDS will still be central to meeting those targets - but seems likely to be doing so as a smaller, more tightly focused organisation.

Spending review will show how - or if - digital is the future of the public sector

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November 25th is highlighted in red ink for any IT leader in the public sector. That's the day the chancellor, George Osborne, reveals the winners and losers in the 2015 spending review, which determines how much cash each department, agency and council gets to spend over the next five years.

We know Osborne is looking for significant cuts - on top of the significant cuts of the last five years. Some departments have already agreed to 30% reductions in budget, others will see even more.

We know, for example, that the Department for Health has asked for as much as £5.6bn for technology improvements. Much as everyone in the NHS acknowledges that digital offers huge potential to improve efficiency and cut costs, observers would have to question whether such a sum will be awarded in the midst of all the other funding crises in the health service.

We know, too, that the Government Digital Service (GDS) has submitted four key bids for funding - to cover its government as a platform strategy; the Verify identity assurance programme; for rolling out better end-user technology across Whitehall; and for GDS itself.

It's notable that GDS itself is subject to a separate bid to the three cross-government initiatives - a clear suggestion that those three projects could go ahead even if GDS sees a cut in its funding. Rumours continue that GDS will be a lot smaller in size as a result of the spending review, as departments pick up more of the digital transformation work. We will find out on the 25th.

IT chiefs in local government will be most nervous. Most of them have suffered five years of huge cuts, and are expecting more. It seems clear that Whitehall expects a more radical rethink of how councils deliver services than simply salami slicing costs from the way they currently work. Huge question marks remain over the ability and willingness of the sector to respond.

HM Revenue & Customs perhaps demonstrates the challenges for their peers. The tax collector announced plans to shut 137 offices and move to 13 regional centres by 2021 - a move enabled by its digital investments. But unions have reacted, not surprisingly, with horror to the likely scale of job cuts.

From civil servants to ministers to David Cameron, we hear talk of how digital will be central to meeting Osborne's tough targets. Very soon we find out just how critical it will be.

Women are breaking the glass firewall in IT - but they need the men in IT to do more

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One of the most pleasing aspects of this year's UKtech50 - Computer Weekly's annual list of the 50 most influential people in UK IT - is that over one-third of the nominees shortlisted for the reader vote are women.

It's a sign that more and more women are breaking through the glass firewall in technology and achieving positions of influence and seniority. Bring them on. And bring on a big increase in young women choosing technology as a career too - we need them all. The current figure of 16% of IT professionals being female is a disgrace to the industry.

But for all the great networking groups set up for women in IT, and work done to highlight the need for more females in the industry, I'd bet that if you asked each of the 17 women on the UKtech50 list to name the people to whom they owe the most for helping them up the ladder, every one of them would mention some men.

There is no escaping the fact that the people who need to do the most to get more women into IT are the men in IT. Men still make most of the recruitment decisions, the promotion decisions and write most of the job specifications.

Two years ago, we published a list of 10 things that men in IT can do to help women in IT, and it bears repeating:

  1. Be a mentor for women in IT
  2. Offer work experience
  3. Specify a target for female CVs from recruitment agencies
  4. Review your HR policies
  5. Offer training for returners to work
  6. Improve your female contact network
  7. Review your skills profiles and person specifications
  8. Speak at schools
  9. Encourage more female speakers at IT events
  10. Encourage your children to consider science and technology
You can read more about each item on that list here.

Computer Weekly recently talked to some of the men who do item one on that list - the mentors who have helped successful women reach the top of the profession, as nominated by the women they mentor.

We talk a lot about the importance of female role models to attract more women, but these male role models are just as important to show the men in IT the vital importance of helping to address the shocking diversity gap in technology.

Goodbye old HP, hello new HPs - but for how long?

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On Monday 2nd November, HP as we know it ceases to exist. The IT supplier that once was too big to fail, becomes two companies that, if recent history is anything to go by, will be individually much more vulnerable.

Of course the rationale for the move is quite the opposite - two slimmer, more focused firms; one targeting enterprises, one more oriented to consumers. The logic there is spot on - it's increasingly difficult for a major IT supplier to satisfy the needs of both companies and consumers using the same business model and investment priorities. The R&D behind a tablet device is completely different to that for cloud, servers or storage, for example.

But HP's split doesn't come at a time when it offers a great deal of confidence to market watchers that the underlying strategy is going in the right direction.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise - the new corporate IT supplier - is cutting a further 30,000 jobs, in addition to the 55,000 lost across HP in recent years. No firm making cuts on that scale simply to maintain profitability can afford to invest in the next generation technology it needs to remain competitive.

The company's cloud strategy continues to lurch one way then the next like an inebriated sales rep. Six months ago, HP denied stories that it was about to exit the public cloud market - only to confirm its exit from the market in October.

Meanwhile HP Ink - sorry, Inc - the PC and printer company, faces a future in a rapidly declining PC market, without any significant presence in tablets or mobiles, eking out a profit from sales of ink even as people increasingly print less. Where, seriously, is the long-term growth in those markets?

The old HP's current market worth is about $49bn - less than Apple's latest quarterly revenue or its annual profit. HP still has a lot of good people, some good products and valuable intellectual property. How long before someone looks at one of the two halves of the former whole and thinks that's a bargain?

As Dell and EMC are demonstrating, even the biggest dinosaurs are quite capable of embracing each other for comfort as the asteroid descends. For the sake of HP's many corporate customers, let's hope the split is the kick it needs, not another bump on the way down.

Digital transformation will not happen across local government - so what's the alternative?

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We often hear local government talked about as if it were a single entity. It's particularly common in digital circles - "We need a digital transformation of local government!" being a typical clarion call.

But of course local government is not an entity - it's 433 independent, democratically elected and often feisty and protective organisations. They each take their responsibilities for delivering local public services very seriously - as they should - and highlight the critical role they play in the community, in enabling local democracy, and supporting those in society who need the most help, such as social care and children's services.

And every one of them is under threat as a result of ongoing austerity cuts in their budgets imposed from Westminster. Most are waiting for George Osborne's impending spending review to find out just how tough the next five years are going to be - having already cut 30% or more of their costs in the last five.

There will be council leaders ideologically opposed to the cuts who will let their services dwindle to the point of crisis and use that as a stick to beat the government. There are others who say, with justification, that digital transformation is the only way to save local public services.

But perhaps it's time to admit that digital transformation of local government in its entirety, as it exists now, is a pipe dream, an impossibility, and will never happen.

No precedent

There is no precedent in any sector for transforming 433 independent bodies using technology or any other means. It was notably tried in the NHS - the disastrous National Programme for IT similarly tried to impose digital transformation on the 400-plus independent organisations that make up the NHS (not to mention the 8,000-plus GP practices) and ended up wasting more than £10bn of taxpayers' money in failing to do so.

Local authorities are no more likely to accept or respond to any such central initiative. And it's increasingly clear that the diversity of opinion, experience and leadership across the sector means that those 433 councils are not all going to achieve digital transformation on their own.

In the past year, I've been fortunate to chair the three major conferences of Socitm, the local government IT managers group - the latest of which took place earlier this week in Leicester. All three events have been startlingly similar.

There are a number of standout councils and leaders doing some incredible work on digital transformation - Peterborough, Leeds, Camden, Bristol, Newham, Surrey, Edinburgh, Hampshire and others to whom I apologise if I fail to mention. But they remain in the minority of those 433. At each Socitm event, it's the same people presenting, and the same people just listening.

For every Peterborough that is using internet of things technology to transform social care, there's a 10-year outsourcing deal elsewhere signed with a Capita or a Serco. For every Bristol becoming a smart city, there's a council building its own datacentre.

Fellow technology journalist Derek du Preez wrote a good overview of the issue at Diginomica, here, which is worth a read too.

Luddites vs revolutionaries

Across the sector there are as many charismatic luddites as there are digital revolutionaries - and it's going to take a generation for that to change.

One such charismatic luddite - and proudly so - is Sevenoaks District Council leader and a leading figure in the Local Government Association (LGA), Peter Fleming, who spoke at Socitm this week. He's a man with a huge and engaging personality, who talked passionately of his belief that every council is unique, and that the sector needs a greater decentralisation of power to serve the specific local needs of their communities. He defines local public services by place; he opposes the idea of standard platforms and systems.

At the opposite end, among the digital revolutionaries, you find the view (which I would support) that the vast majority of what every one of those 433 bodies do is the same and therefore could be standardised using technology. To them, the only unique thing about a local authority is the sense of place - place should be the local layer that sits on top of standard digital platforms for housing, transport, waste management, care services and so on.

It's about an organisation defined by place, against public services localised by place.

I wrote here after Socitm's April conference that the sector needs radical change - a wholesale overhaul that could reduce it to maybe 20 or 30 devolved administrative organisations with councils replaced by smaller, leaner local delivery units adding the sense of place and community to the more generic public services the 20 or 30 operations provide. Think of it as more of a hub and spoke set-up than the current arrangements. Digital makes that possible - even preferable - compared to a structure that was designed in the 19th century.

Every council has already done its salami slicing to meet austerity targets. The only way to cut further and maintain local services is to take 30% or more out of the cost of the local government sector as a whole, not from the cost of each of 433 individual, separately managed entities. That requires radical, sector-wide change, for which there is currently zero appetite.

So the digital revolutionaries will carry on, and will show what can be done. But it won't be done - not everywhere, and not to the scale that the sector desperately needs, at least not for many years.

Start again

If you accept that argument, then it leads to an obvious question - do we need to start again? Does the delivery of local public services need to be redesigned from scratch? Should we switch funding away from every luddite to a digital revolutionary and let them build not just a new council for their region, but a new sector? Simply let those who cannot or will not change whither - but maintain services until their revolutionary counterparts can take over? That's how it works in industry - for every Netflix there's a Blockbuster.

The revolutionaries might like that idea, but of course that's not going to happen either. Central government won't take on the challenge of restructuring local government because it knows councillors would never accept it - so instead they are hit with more and bigger budget cuts to make them decide for themselves. Local authorities won't come together as one to reshape the sector, because turkeys don't vote for Christmas - or at least, councillors and CEOs don't vote themselves out of power or out of a job.

It's not going to come from the Government Digital Service (GDS) either - their remit is firmly on central government, and their message to local authorities is primarily to encourage them to use the tools GDS has developed for Whitehall - G-Cloud,, the Crown Hosting Service, government as a platform, and so on. Besides, GDS is busy trying to protect its own budget.

A question of leadership

Peter Fleming made an interesting observation in his Socitm talk - he said he hoped one day to see heads of children's services or other lines of business attending a Socitm conference. I'd throw that back and ask how many IT managers get invited to LGA or Solace (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives) meetings?

An interactive straw poll among Socitm delegates asked what was the biggest factor holding back their digital efforts - by far the most popular response was "leadership", selected by half of those taking part; the implication being that executive leadership at council level is a problem.

Of course you could say - well, they would say that, wouldn't they?

But a common factor in the stories of all the successful digital revolutionaries talking at Socitm was the top-level support, backing and investment given to their initiatives from council leaders. There seems an obvious conclusion - combine digital leadership with enlightened councillors and CEOs and you see great progress being made.

These are the people who need to be driving local public services. For them to be empowered to do so beyond their strict council boundaries needs either direction and even legislation from Westminster, or unprecedented co-operation from their less forward-thinking peers. Even great leaders in such a fragmented sector need great leadership above them to allow them the space to make it happen.

Until then, let's continue to celebrate the digital successes even if we know where they will come from and accept that their wider impact will be less than it could be. But the challenge for local government - as a sector, and in each of those 433 organisations - is not about digital or austerity cuts or local democracy or place. It's about enlightened, 21st century leadership, at all levels, and nothing more.

And at the end of the day, the people with the power to change that are the ones who vote for them.

DVLA shows the long-overdue maturing of outsourcing in government

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Former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude once described DVLA as having the worst outsourcing contract in government - and that's quite an accolade, given the number of terrible deals in the public sector.

So it's not surprising that people in government technology now are quietly elated that DVLA has not only ended that contract, but brought most of its IT service provision back in-house. Over 300 staff have been brought back into public employment, and savings approaching £300m are expected over the next 10 years - after spending £1.3bn over 13 years with suppliers IBM, Fujitsu and Concentrix.

DVLA's history of outsourcing went back even further - even Margaret Thatcher took an interest when she was prime minister. So it's understandable that the move back in-house is seen as something of a landmark.

Outsourcing has its place, in government and the private sector, and total spend on outsourcing is on the up. But attitudes to it have rightly changed.

In the days of the multi-year megadeal outsourcing contracts, boardrooms would say that IT is not our core function, so let's bring in outside experts whose sole purpose is managing IT. Most customers subsequently found that contracts were inflexible, change control was costly, and after a few years many of those deals became hindrances to progress, not a help.

Stories of £300 bills for changing a user password were rife. The Department for Energy and Climate Change told Computer Weekly in 2013 that its outsourcing contract was the reason it couldn't move to the cloud. Several local councils had to abandon long-term contracts because the suppliers simply could not achieve the austerity cuts demanded. Horror stories abound.

Now that leaders in government and business have realised that digital is actually a core function, they are bringing back control. They need technology skills in-house to support the agility and customer engagement they require. The role of outsourcers is narrower, more tightly defined, and typically on shorter-term deals.

Not all outsourcing suppliers have found this an easy change. HP's Enterprise Services division - the former EDS outsourcing giant acquired in 2008 and still one of the biggest providers to government - has made tens of thousands of job cuts.

Business attitudes to IT outsourcing have matured, and they had to. DVLA will be held up as a shining example to the rest of government as it tries to unravel itself from the costly, legacy outsourcing deals that continue to hold back its digital transformation.

I finally made it to Windows 10 - and can't really see why any businesses would do the same

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Microsoft would be happy with me right now - I just upgraded to Windows 10. It was free, as a consumer, of course, so that helped. But frankly, the only reason I did so was because my seven-year old Windows Vista laptop was coughing and spluttering like a dodgy Volkswagen diesel.

Apparently I have followed the lead of more than 100 million people who have downloaded Windows 10 so far - that's a little over 5% of all PCs in the world.

I would guess that my first experience of Windows 10 was not dissimilar to many other reasonably tech-savvy users: Where's the control panel? Where's the user account setup? Why do I have to create a Microsoft account to use all the services? Why is "shut down" hidden behind a feature called "power"? But you get there in the end.

And so, I can now happily continue using my Windows 10 laptop at home to do exactly the same things I used my old Windows Vista laptop for - which is basically anything that needs a proper keyboard. Maybe 80% of what I once used the home laptop for I now do on my not-Windows smartphone or tablet. I don't think I'm at all unusual in that.

So the big question that remains for Microsoft as it applauds itself for the rapid take-up of Windows 10 is - how many of those 100 million users are businesses? Very few, for a bet.

What is the compelling reason for a company to go through the obvious pain of a Windows migration for all their users yet again? For the majority of organisations, there isn't one. It's telling perhaps, that when Computer Weekly asked an expert to write the first article in our forthcoming Buyer's Guide to Windows 10 Migration, he wrote mostly about why you don't really need a desktop anymore.

Nobody justifies IT purchases based on a three- or five-year payback period anymore - the length of a typical Microsoft licensing deal. It needs to deliver a return in a year or two at most, often less. It's hard to make that case based on Windows 10. That's even before you consider previous bad experiences with things like application compatibility.

The same questions now face Office 2016 - do you really need those extra features? Do they really justify the pain of a corporate migration? Almost certainly not.

The new Microsoft under CEO Satya Nadella knows all this. Windows and Office today are simply vehicles to get businesses onto Azure and Office 365. The real question for IT managers is not how to upgrade to Windows 10 and Office 2016, but why?

Ofcom review should aspire to a broadband infrastructure that is the envy of the world

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Perhaps Ofcom should review the UK communications market every year - because its current one certainly seems to be causing waves at BT.

The regulator put the future of BT's Openreach network infrastructure subsidiary on the table in July when it published a discussion document offering a break-up of the telecoms giant as one of the future options under consideration.

Despite BT's multibillion-pound investment in what it refers to as fibre broadband - in reality, fibre to the street cabinet (FTTC), not to your front door like the world's most advanced broadband countries - the firm faces regular and frequent criticism over its roll-out of superfast connectivity.

The accusations against BT have been well documented - ignoring rural areas, monopolising the government funding for roll-out, steamrollering smaller local broadband providers, to name a few - and have been equally robustly defended.

BT - and the government - point to the UK as a broadband leader in Europe as justification for the current set-up. An independent report this week supported their claims, stating that: "When it comes to superfast broadband coverage, the UK is around three years ahead of the western European average".

But Europe is not the benchmark by which we should be measured - our neighbours have comparatively moribund broadband, restricted as they are by the dominance of their former telecom monopolies. We need the UK to be a world leader, with a digital infrastructure the envy of our international competitors. That means starting to invest in fibre everywhere now.

The focus of debate is increasingly around Openreach, as rivals such as Sky, Vodafone and TalkTalk call for it to be split off to encourage more investment in replacing the country's ageing copper infrastructure.

BT, while stoutly insisting there is no case to be made for separation, has responded with a raft of commitments to further improving the UK's broadband infrastructure - extending FTTC beyond the current 95% target, increasing minimum speeds to 5Mbps and beyond, and a faster roll-out of "ultrafast" (but still copper) broadband offering speeds up to 500Mbps.

It's amazing what a whiff of regulatory and competitive pressure can do. BT will say it would have done all that anyway, but there's little doubt the Ofcom review has focused minds, if not accelerated plans.

Nonetheless, the fact that BT needs to be so assertive is a sign that competition in the broadband market doesn't work. In a fully functioning market, rivals would be falling over each other to compete by improving their services, instead of relying on BT to improve the infrastructure for them to resell.

The Ofcom review has thereby demonstrated not only its own importance, but the reason why separating Openreach is the best option. An independent Openreach, relying not on a dominant parent but on a diverse market for its income, means less regulation in the sector. Less regulation means more competition; more competition means the UK's digital infrastructure can keep pace with the world leaders. That is the benchmark Ofcom should aspire to.

The nonsense about robots taking your job risks a culture of digital fear

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"300,000 jobs at high risk of automation"; "Robots have put 1.3 million Londoners' jobs at risk"; "Robots could take 35% of UK jobs in the next 20 years, says new study" - these were just three of the hyperbolic headlines that accompanied a frenzy of media coverage last week following a BBC Panorama programme asking "Could a robot do my job?".

Most of those numbers came from research by Deloitte, featured in the BBC show, which analysed employment statistics to determine which jobs are most at risk from the increasing pace of technology automation. Throw in a few references to robots and artificial intelligence and you get a nicely hyped up scare story about how technology is going to devastate the jobs market. If you're not scared yet, you should be, apparently.

Of course it's all nonsense. That Deloitte report actually concluded that the number of jobs with a low risk of automation is increasing faster than jobs being replaced by automated processes across all regions of the UK. Around 800,000 "high-risk" jobs have been replaced since 2001, but 3.5 million jobs at low risk of automation have been created.

"IT creating millions of jobs" is, for some reason, less of an interesting headline, and has been less of an interesting headline for as long as the IT industry has existed. Tech has been presented as the great jobs killer for decades, despite creating millions of jobs. We should be used to it by now.

But there is a real danger that such hyperbolic reporting creates a culture of fear around technology, one that will chime with a lot of people already struggling to cope with the pace of change in the digital revolution.

From the invention of the printing press, to the industrial revolution, to the current silicon age, technology has removed the need for jobs that are typically low-skilled, administrative or bureaucratic. It's often pointed out that the jobs created are high-skilled, higher income jobs, and that these technological elites are benefiting while low-earning socio-economic groups suffer. That's an easy accusation to make but it's equally nonsense. Jobs are created at every level of employment - it just means that work that is often considered menial gets done by machines instead. Surely that's a good thing.

The critical point here is that this is not a jobs issue, but a training issue. If we can identify the sort of jobs likely to be automated - and we can - government and industry must target those workers for training in the new skills they will need. This has to happen before their jobs go, not after - that's something the UK has never been good at doing.

We have learned from past technological change what happens to old jobs, and still we face shortages for new skills. It's not about protecting old jobs and industries but nurturing new ones. We know the challenge ahead - what's needed is leadership that prepares the workforce to be ready for the new job opportunities to come.

Buy vs build and the rise of open source are driving digital transformation

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One of the defining characteristics of digital transformation for most organisations is the realisation that software development is a core business activity. For much of the 1990s and 2000s, building your own software was something to be outsourced - often to low-cost offshore providers. "We're not a software company," boardrooms would cry; "Why would we spend money employing programmers?"

Now, software is increasingly central to customer engagement and so, for many organisations, that means ongoing iteration and enhancement of that software is a key process. As such, the question for many IT and digital leaders is changing, from insource or outsource, to buy or build.

With an IT infrastructure that is agile, increasingly using cloud services, built on service-oriented architecture, there is an increasing element of commoditisation working its way through the application stack.

Where requirements are unique - perhaps even central to the competitive advantage of your company - you'd be inclined to build. Where it's a commodity function, you're likely to buy. But the debate about where you draw that line is yet to be resolved.

The Government Digital Service, for example, recently revealed a project to develop a standard platform as a service (PaaS) capability across Whitehall. Critics immediately jumped on this and asked, with many PaaS solutions available on the market, why build when they could buy?

IT leaders need to have a firm understanding of how software differentiates their business, and so where to draw the blurred line between what to build and what to buy. One of the most interesting facets of this distinction has come in the dramatic rise of open source.

Once upon a time in IT, using open source simply meant Linux instead of Windows, or maybe MySQL instead of Oracle. Now, there is such a huge diversity of open source tools, and almost every leading digital business and tech startup is making extensive use of them. Open source is driving the further commoditisation of software capabilities, and as such is driving the move to greater in-house software development resource and more collaborative approaches.

It's been a remarkable turnaround for open source over the last 10 years, placing the trend firmly at the heart of the digital revolution. And it's another indicator of the enormous changes that will continue to challenge traditional software suppliers whose licensing models will find it ever harder to fit with the emerging digital strategies of their customers.

Why GDS doesn't matter - the questions for UK digital government

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The summer parliamentary recess is meant to be a quiet time for anyone writing about government matters, but for those of us following all things technology it's been an unexpectedly busy period.

Mike Bracken's surprise departure as digital government chief brought a burst of analysis, blogs, opinion, speculation and doom-mongering across the board. If you want to read the definitive version of why Bracken is leaving, take a look at Computer Weekly's exclusive in-depth interview to see the words of the man himself.

But many questions remain up for debate about the post-Bracken environment, not least the future of the Government Digital Service (GDS) that he leads, and the government as a platform (GaaP) strategy that he hopes to establish.

Speculation suggests that GDS will see "savage cuts", as one source put it. Civil service CEO John Manzoni has refused to back GaaP, according to other rumours. Neither is entirely wrong, but neither are strictly true either - the situation is more nuanced than that.

I wrote soon after the election that the jungle drums even at that time suggested the future for GDS was as a smaller, more focused operation, with greater power handed back to the departments. That seems increasingly likely, but the shape and role of GDS in this sort of set-up is as yet unclear.

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock made his first response to the post-Bracken rumours in a blog post, affirming his support for the "next phase" of GDS without saying what that next phase might involve.

Hancock's post also mentioned that he had been discussing digital government with consultancy PWC, a statement that went down like a lead balloon with a lot of the government digital community on Twitter, with its hints of a return to the old Big IT and Big Consultancy models of the past.

For what it's worth, having talked to a number of contacts and with Bracken himself, this is my take on the current situation and the possible future...

What next?

GDS has been hit with budget cuts - and they have affected its capacity to deliver in the short term - but so far these are in-year cuts, and are in line with what has happened in other Whitehall departments. But also, the Cabinet Office was given £55m in additional funding in the summer budget specifically for "efficiency and reform", which is mostly being shared between property overhauls and defining business cases for further digital government projects.

The real issue is the spending review, currently underway, which will set the spending parameters and priorities for the next three to five years of the new government. GDS, like every part of the government, has to submit its business case for funding and what it will deliver with that cash.

What about GaaP?

On GaaP, nobody has dismissed it. Bracken says it is "not true" that his boss, John Manzoni, has refused to back GaaP. Manzoni may well have questioned the strategy - that is his job, after all - but the future of GaaP, like so much else, is dependent on the spending review. Bracken is finalising the business case for GaaP, following the financial principles laid down by Manzoni and the Treasury - a piece of work that has taken several months to put together, and has involved input from every major government department. Its future will be decided by the Treasury.

There is no lack of commitment from Manzoni, Hancock, head of the civil service Jeremy Heywood, the Treasury, or Number 10 for the principle of digital government and the savings and improved services it can deliver.

There seems little doubt, however, that Manzoni and Bracken have disagreed on how the digital transformation of government will be delivered. Bracken insists that transformation must be led by a "digital centre" combining digital, technology and data expertise to act as a "lever" to make things happen in departments.

Manzoni - pressured no doubt by departmental permanent secretaries whose instinct as civil service mandarins is to dismiss any central control over their strategy or budgets - prefers a departmentally led approach.

Bracken, with plenty of historical justification, says that departments are not set up to work on cross-government projects such as GaaP, and will naturally revert to their own siloed priorities. That's not a criticism of departments - just recognition of their natural inclinations and the way the civil service has always worked.

Bracken quit, mostly because after four years of receiving full support from former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude for building up GDS as the digital centre, he has been forced back to square one, justifying his plans again and again, and seeing the wind changing direction towards pushing digital power back to departments.

No proven model

Much of the debate has got overly wrapped up in the whole government as a platform idea. It's important to remember that no government in the world has yet fully implemented GaaP - even if some including the UK have created individual platforms. There is no proven model to follow at the scale of the UK government. Bracken has his vision of how to deliver GaaP, but his is not the only vision. There are plenty of people who feel GDS has gone in the wrong direction and that it's more important to define what GaaP really means in practice before committing to anyone's vision of what it should be.

In Bracken's vision, GaaP involves designing and building a series of common platforms and services - such as payments, status tracking, identity assurance, etc - to be used by all departments to avoid duplication and unnecessary cost. He says that cannot be delivered by individual departments alone.

An alternative vision of GaaP, such as that proposed by Mark Thompson, who has long been close to GDS and co-authored the Tory IT manifesto, Better for Less, before the 2010 election, sees GaaP as a set of enabling standards and principles, with the market providing solutions using data and APIs - minimising in-house software development. Think of it as an Amazon or Uber for government - enabling an ecosystem not building in-house software.

Both strategies are feasible, both could work, so could a hybrid of the two, but neither has been implemented in practice in full at scale in government anywhere, so nobody really knows. Someone in Whitehall has to decide which model - or even a different model - is the one to pursue.

It's a question of leadership and accountability, not budgets or whether one person likes GaaP as a concept or not.

GaaP is going to happen in some shape or form - but it might not be Bracken's vision of GaaP, and it might not be labelled GaaP anymore, but it's going to happen. The question is how it will be managed and delivered.

Future of GDS

This is where the future of GDS comes in. Much as Bracken has argued for a digital centre of government, he said in his Computer Weekly interview that the size of that centre is less important. What matters is having some form of central body with the authority to make things happen - and importantly, to make things happen in collaboration with departments. It's not about the size of the budget, it's about what is the best way to do things.

For Bracken, that is a central team plus departments. The battle he is fighting is with the mandarins who believe it should be led by departments. There will still be digital government plans - the question is who leads, and who has accountability.

It seems likely that if GDS continues, it will be smaller, more strategic, and perhaps with a bigger role for Liam Maxwell's Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) team. I get the impression from sources that there is a regrouping around Maxwell's Better for Less paper of 2010, which was effectively the Conservative technology manifesto for the general election of that year. There are certainly people close to GDS who feel that more of the transformation GDS has delivered so far has come from Maxwell's reforms of technology strategy, rather than Bracken's digital services.

If you look at the recent figures published by the Cabinet Office for 2014/15 cost savings across government, £1.7bn was attributed to GDS-led digital and tech activities. But of that number, about £1.1bn fell within Maxwell's remit.

The difficulty for digital transformation and GaaP is a Catch 22. The savings potential is enormous - but because nobody has done it before, it's harder to prove and takes longer to deliver. The reforms Maxwell introduced have brought about real, lasting cost cuts in a short timeframe. If you have a Treasury mandarin on your shoulder, telling you to cut your costs by 40% in the next three years, which one are you more likely to back?

Digital government at a crossroads

Digital government in the UK is certainly at a crossroads, but the real challenge it faces is not unique to government, and applies to any organisation that is adapting to the digital revolution.

There is only so much transformation that any organisation can undertake, until it reaches the point where fundamental reform is needed. For companies, that means business model reform; for government, it means reform of the institutions by which public services and government policy is delivered. Perhaps the most salient observation in Bracken's interview was when he said: "For most of this period, digital has not been an institutional challenge. Now it is."

You can read plenty of articles online about the companies that failed because they missed this critical juncture in the digital transformation of their business.

At Kodak, it was when one of their employees invented the first digital camera, and was told not tell anyone about it so as not to affect sales of film.

At Blockbuster, it was the statement to the US stock market saying the effect of the internet on its business had been greatly overstated.

At HMV, it was the board meeting when executives told an external advisor that they believed music lovers would always want to browse through music in a store before buying.

Government, of course, cannot go bust like a Kodak or a Blockbuster. But it can continue to lose engagement with citizens, to foster cynicism and distrust, and to see the quality of public services deteriorate through continual "salami slicing" of operations without changing the way those services are delivered.

The UK government is at that point now.

Bracken is right to say that the next phase of digital transformation - whatever that might involve - is the step that will require fundamental change of government institutions. But that is not the mindset of the civil service.

Civil service inertia

There was a great blog post published recently by an ex-GDS staffer, Andrew Greenway, which described the 26 years of discussion and denials that led to the creation of a central government unit for recording official statistics. During that time, the civil service insisted statistics could be delivered by departments working together. It never happened. It took a major crisis - World War 2 in this case, and the need for better statistics to aid war planning - to make it happen.

This is how the civil service has been for decades. It's not surprising it naturally resists change - that's a lot of inertia to overcome. But the people who manufactured and marketed film for Kodak had worked that way for decades too. Their inertia killed the company. The Whitehall departments that wanted to keep statistics recording to themselves prevaricated until there was a war to force them to change.

What will it take for this UK government to understand and implement the radical reforms it needs, if it is to become truly digital? Five years ago, austerity was enough to give power to Mike Bracken's elbow. It seems that a slowly improving economy has shifted the balance of power back.

GDS doesn't matter

So, in that grand scheme of things, GDS doesn't actually matter. What's needed is political and civil service leadership from the very top for widespread institutional reform of the way government works, thinks and goes about its business.

If that is best delivered by a central team called GDS (or with any other name), then it needs the accountability and resources to do so. If that means a smaller GDS than now, that shouldn't be a problem - as long as it has the backing to lead the necessary transformation, in collaboration with departments.

If that is best delivered by departments working together, then it still needs someone with the leadership and accountability to make sure departments look and act beyond the narrow confines of their siloed remit. History suggest there is little precedent for this to work.

If, after the spending review is over, GDS no longer exists, that in itself is not a problem if the commitment to reform is in place and is workable and has clear leadership.

If, however, digital transformation is left to individual departments, then savings can still be made and individual services improved in those departments, but the bigger prize of government-wide reform and dramatic improvements in efficiency are very unlikely to be achieved in this parliament.

Eventually, it will happen. Digital transformation is inevitable and unstoppable in every industry and every part of public life. The civil service will change - either through enlightened leadership in the next five years, or kicking and screaming at some point in future when it has no choice. The next few months will tell us which.

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