Labour: 'This is not a review of GDS. It is a review of digital government'

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Labour formally launched its Digital Government Review at an event in London last night.

It's clearly going to attract a lot of interest and scrutiny, if the reaction to my previous article on the subject is anything to go by.

In particular, the suggestion that the Government Digital Service (GDS) might become a political football between Labour and the Tories has aroused much debate. Here are some of the best articles I've seen since:

Digital electioneering, by Alex Blandford.
The task facing Labour's Digital Review, by Matthew Cain.
Digital is political, by Stefan Czerniawski.
As these examples show, this is a topic that a lot of people are passionate about.

Last night was an opportunity for Chi Onwurah, Labour's shadow minister for digital government, to announce the "independent, non-partisan" advisory board who will help with the review, and to attempt to clarify some of the speculation of recent days.

"This is not a review of GDS," she said, "It is a review of digital government."

I get the impression that Labour does privately see GDS as a Tory creation, and as such not to be entirely trusted. But the depth of support for what GDS is doing means it would be very unwise of Labour to overtly target GDS.

Nonetheless, as several of the guests that I talked to acknowledged, it is very difficult to review the state of digital government without reviewing the role of GDS. In central government at least, GDS is digital government.

The membership of the advisory board was received as a mixture of "Good choice", "Who?" and "Not them again" by people I talked to. But it does represent a wide spread of digital experts, citizen advocates and industry experience. The advisors are:

  • Peter Ingram, managing director of Touchstone Consulting, previously CTO of Ofcom and BT Retail.
  • Stephen King, a partner at Omidyar Network, the venture capital fund created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
  • Piers Linney, co-CEO of cloud service provider Outsourcery, and a "dragon" on the BBC's Dragon's Den show.
  • William Perrin, the founder of Talk About Local, until recently a member of the GDS advisory board, and former technology policy advisor to Tony Blair and driving force behind the Labour government's 2007 Power of Information Review.
  • Cho Oliver, director of software consultancy Liquid Steel, previously CIO of European Oil Trading at BP and now an advisor to Labour on innovation & science.
  • Vicki Shotbolt, founder and CEO of The Parent Zone, an online community and information source for parents.
  • Jeni Tennison, technical director of the Open Data Institute.
  • Graham Walker, CEO of Go On UK, Martha Lane Fox's charity set up to develop digital skills among the 11 million UK adults who have never used the internet or do not feel confident enough to do so more often.
Labour has wisely avoided representation on the advisory board from the big IT suppliers that have become a controversial bone of contention under the Coalition government. The "oligopoly" that dominated government IT under the Labour administration - and have since been accused of "ripping off government" - have seen their contribution and revenue from Whitehall slide in recent years, and they are not happy about it.

It is clear that they see Labour's review as an opportunity to reverse that trend should Labour win next year's general election.

The event was hosted by mobile giant EE at its Paddington office, and among the guests were executives from some of the suppliers that have taken the most criticism for their past contributions to Whitehall IT, such as Microsoft and Fujitsu. Their lobbying budgets will be well exercised over the next 12 months.

Of course, Labour would be wrong to exclude Big IT from its review and their input will be valuable. But there are definite concerns from many digital advocates that the Big IT influence will be disproportionate. It is up to Onwurah and the advisory board to make sure that doesn't happen.

One welcome area that Labour wants to focus on is local government. It is fair to say that councils have not been the priority for GDS, which has focused on technical, commercial, organisational and cultural change in IT and digital across Whitehall.

That's not to say GDS is not interested in local government - it is - more that as civil servants they target the priorities of their political masters. So it is a good time to see how best to combine central and local government digital efforts for the greater good of citizens.

After all, for most people it is local services that represent their daily experiences of the public sector. It's great to have a superb online car tax system, or an easy to use digital PAYE tax website, but you only need those once a year. Everyday public services for most people are education, local transport, refuse collection, housing, social care and other council-managed services.

Most of all, Labour's digital government review is an opportunity for everyone to get involved - much as it is set up and run for political purposes, Onwurah was clear that they want input from anyone and everyone with an interest in the topic or with a contribution to be made.

So, whether you think digital government is political or not, I'm sure you think it is vitally important - so let Labour know your views.

1 Comment

My impression is that the majority of people working within GDS are genuinely enthusiastic about what they're doing and don't perceive it as driven by a particular political stance. But the strategy behind GDS clearly has consequences that serve the Coalition's broader political agenda.

The creation of GDS, the migration of departmental websites to GOV.UK, and measures to discourage departments from doing their own IT development outside the GDS framework, have effectively centralised influence over digital government within the Cabinet Office and hollowed out IT expertise within individual departments.

The other big concern is the extent to which GDS's migration of department websites to GOV.UK has erased much of the detail of government policy prior to 2010, by taking material produced under previous Labour governments out of Google results. It's difficult not to see a political motive behind that.

It's also arguable that the GDS project has so far focused on "low-hanging fruit", e.g. the consolidation of government information and comms via GOV.UK. We saw for example the way in which GDS shied away from helping DWP with the Universal Credit IT debacle. One of the risks for Labour, if it goes along with the current GDS approach, is that it flounders on the tougher work required after 2015. It would be easy for the Tories, in opposition, to make that look like bad management.

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