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GDS must not become an outlier, warns Martha Lane Fox

Kathleen Hall

The work of the Government Digital Service (GDS) must not remain an outlier to the way the public sector delivers online services, digital champion Martha Lane Fox told Computer Weekly.

“The danger for GDS is if it becomes an outlier and isn’t embedded absolutely across government. So that is what they have to keep working at and why the digital strategy is so important, and the government digital standards are so important. So we’ve done the first part of the job. The next stage, as [GDS head] Mike [Bracken] himself would say, is about delivery,” she told Computer Weekly in an interview at the GDS Sprint 13 event.

GDS was created on Martha Lane Fox's recommendation to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. “The fundamentals of what we are trying to do are to think about the user; use simpler technology and create single platforms and domains. And the fact GDS has come out of that is fantastic, but I want to keep coming back to those first principles, because this is a pan-government issue,” she said.

“We need to have a huge list of services and transactions all the time that are coming digital by default." 

Cultural barriers

The biggest challenges are changing structures and processes that, in some cases, have been running since the 1850s, she said. “So this is absolutely about cultural and behavioural change in how things operate in government. It’s not about the technology. The biggest barrier in delivery of the digital strategy is making sure we have the skills in departments.”

She praised the work of GDS, describing it as having exceeded her expectations one-hundred fold. “Whenever I read something about the civil service not being fit for purpose, I think, 'Well, it is possible to create those exemplars and a really different way of doing things.'”

In her review of public services, Lane Fox originally estimated £8bn could be saved by moving to digital by default. “Obviously it is a lot cheaper, but the cheaper part has to be second to it being better for customers. You are never going to get rid of paper, if paper is actually the best way of doing it – so that is why you have to make the digital service very compelling and very easy to use."

Tests for effective digital services

She said three tests could be applied to see if government is creating effective digital services. “Firstly: are citizens using them? That is the starting point, because at the moment people give up with so many services.

“Secondly, are departments really building proper skills and capability, do they have people who are digitally native, digitally engaged, are they putting users at the heart of their policy-making? And thirdly, there has to be a cost and price comparison to look at services and see if we are making them more efficient.”

As digital champion Lane Fox also chairs digital inclusion charity Go On UK. Recent research from the body found that just 14% of SMEs are using the internet effectively. “That I was very surprised by, even just buying office supplies online could save them money.” Research also found 16 million people don’t have basic digital skills more than 8 million people have never been online.

“It’s a big job to make the UK properly digital, but the prize is huge. It comes down to exactly the same things as with government, which is individual behavioural change and skills. If you don’t know what’s out there and you don’t know what the benefits are for your organisation, you aren't going to [make online a priority] – so there’s a huge education piece there."

Although Lane Fox has been digital champion for four years, she has no immediate plans to step down. “I think you have to be constantly appraising yourself as to whether yours is the best voice – or whether you are becoming a bit like white noise, and not doing a good as job as you could be. But at the minute I’m still having a great time,” she said.


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