It was hugely welcome to see the prominence that digital issues were given during the Labour and Conservative party conferences. Nobody would pretend that voters will make their decisions based on digital policy over NHS, the economy or education, but politicians are taking IT seriously and realising the benefits it can deliver, more than ever before.
This is also a good opportunity to give credit where it is due. We have come a very long way with government IT since the last election. Before May 2010 we still had plans for an ID cards system, for a children’s database, and the ongoing fiasco of the NHS National Programme. The scale of change since then should not be underestimated.
Under the leadership of digital chief Mike Bracken and CTO Liam Maxwell – backed by the political weight of Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude – enormous progress has been made in cutting IT waste, bringing vital skills back in house, and embedding digital across Whitehall departments.
The first Civil Service chief executive was appointed this week – the second item on the list of his priorities in the press release was “digital transformation of public services and the way government works”. That would have been unthinkable just five years ago, when government IT was a thing done by big system integrators that cost billions and was prone to expensive failure.
Listen to Mike Bracken talk about the next five-year parliamentary cycle, and he is confident that digital transformation will be far greater than what has taken place in this parliament. Read Sir Jeremy Heywood, the head of the Civil Service, writing about how “government as a platform” is central to reforming Whitehall and its policy-making processes.
Words are not actions of course, but changing the language is an important step to changing the culture. In a short space of time, we are now in a very different and much improved world when it comes to IT in government.
That’s not to say there aren’t still risks and problems to address. The troubled launch of the DVLA’s new online car tax service shows that for all the positivity around digital, mistakes can and will still be made.
As more of the first wave of digital services go live, scrutiny will be intense. In particular, the Verify identity assurance service that is central to digital citizen engagement will need to prove itself as its first public beta is readied for launch very soon. Of all the new digital services, Verify seems to be attracting the most cynicism from some quarters – and in many ways is the most complex to deliver and to sell to the public.
Five years ago, we hoped that IT would be recognised across government for the benefits it can deliver – but time and again Computer Weekly was writing about project failures that simply repeated the same old problems.
Now, that recognition is there at last – we are going in the right direction. There will be problems, maybe more high-profile failures along the way, but the context for government IT is very different as the general election race hots up. Whoever wins the public’s vote bears the responsibility to continue the positive progress that has been made.
In May 2010, Computer Weekly posed 10 IT questions that the new government would have to answer – here is a brief report card on how well they have done so far:
What happens to all the contracts signed for now-scrapped projects such as ID cards and ContactPoint?
Sorted and forgotten about. 10/10
Who will fund next-generation broadband roll-out?
The BDUK allocation of £1.7bn to support rural broadband roll-out has been controversial – not least that all that cash went to BT – but progress has certainly been made. 7/10
What are the plans for IT skills development and the IT curriculum in schools?
The new computing curriculum started in September and has been welcomed by industry and educators alike. The IT skills shortage in the sector remains, but the growth of apprenticeships – supported by both main political parties – is helping to make a dent. Much more still needs to be done though. 6/10
What happens to public sector IT spending and the government IT strategy?
The Cabinet Office aggressively renegotiated a number of existing IT deals, and the government digital strategy claims to have saved a further £200m – even if the National Audit Office has questioned some of that figure. 7/10
Does the NHS IT Programme have a future?
Rightly scrapped, although not without controversy as key supplier CSC was still set to benefit to the tune of £600m despite its abject failure to deliver. NHS IT has been devolved, but the wider funding crisis in the health service means progress has been slower than hoped. 6/10
How to tackle illegal downloading?
Some rather ham-fisted legislation has been put in place, and new copyright laws came into force this month. But this remains a controversial and complex area. 5/10
Do we still have a digital inclusion strategy?
Progress has been slow, but a new digital inclusion strategy was finally published this year, and a team within GDS is now responsible for ensuring that people who don’t use the internet can still use new digital services. 6/10
What next for open data?
Francis Maude declares himself a supporter of open data, and again, a lot of progress has been made and much more public data is now open to all – even if there are some technical problems to overcome, and much more data yet to be released. 7/10
Will IT projects be made more transparent?
Progress on the 25 digital exemplars has been admirably public, with status updates available on the web for all to see. More than 80 services now have online performance dashboards to monitor service levels. But there remains a culture of secrecy in pockets, not least the Department for Work and Pensions, rightly criticised for the lack of transparency around the troubled Universal Credit IT project. Overall, progress is being made, but much room for improvement. 6/10
What will be done to support UK innovation?
Tech City has been established as a flagship brand for UK startups and the buzz around the tech startup scene is greater than ever. Big companies are supporting startups – partly to make up for the lack of innovation coming from their traditional IT suppliers – and the influence of the startup scene in Number 10 is higher than ever. We haven’t created the British Facebook or Google yet though. 7/10