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Government should create digital minister role post-election, says think tank

The Institute for Government says there has been a lack of digital leadership since Francis Maude left, and calls on the new government to create a minister for digital government

Ahead of the general election, The Institute for Government (IfG) has called on the new prime minister to create a digital minster to drive the transformation strategy post-election.

In a comment piece on the think tank’s website, Daniel Thornton, IfG’s programme director, said Whitehall had suffered from a lack of political leadership for digital government since former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s departure.

“Big decisions, such as about which system to use for verifying citizens’ identity across government, have been ducked,” he said.

“Unlike their predecessors, Theresa May and chancellor Philip Hammond have not spoken about digital government. Together with comments by Amber Rudd about ‘necessary hashtags’, it seems that senior ministers are not taking a keen interest in digital government.”

He added that failures such as the WannaCry ransomware attack, which affected about 50 NHS Trusts in England, including hospitals, GP surgeries and pharmacies, as well as 13 NHS organisations in Scotland, showed the consequences of “the lack of leadership”.

The cyber attack caused major disruption across the NHS, with hospitals having to divert ambulances to other trusts, cancelling appointments and effectively having to shut down their IT systems.

Following the initial attack, in Westminster, Rob Greig, director of the Parliamentary Digital Service, urged members of Parliament (MPs) and peers not to access personal email on their parliamentary computer systems as the WannaCry ransomware was spreading.

“The security standards that are set in the Cabinet Office were poorly applied across the public sector. As state-sponsored cyber attacks become more common, the Cabinet Office needs to insist that its standards are applied – and this requires political leadership,” Thornton said.

Earlier this year, the government published its much-delayed  transformation strategy with the intention of taking “digital transformation further than ever before” by prioritising an overhaul of the civil service, developing skills and culture, using shared platforms, changing back-office processes and systems, and increasing collaboration.

Read more about digital government

However, Thornton said although the strategy set out how the government “could embrace the digital age”, it did not give any steer on “what would be done when” and failed to put any timelines or targets in the strategy.  

“Nor did it set priorities, even though the prospect of Brexit means that immigration and customs urgently need focus. Prioritisation requires leadership from the centre of Whitehall so that key services get the resources they need,” he said.

Last year, an IfG report called on the Government Digital Service (GDS) to to re-equip itself to “support a government that now has rapidly a developing digital capability and high ambitions for change”.

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