Dear Caroline Nokes, a few items for your digital government to-do list

I feel a little sorry for Caroline Nokes, announced this week as the latest minister responsible for digital government – the third to take on that mantle in less than a year. She’s clearly a diligent MP, ranked by MySociety in 2014 as the best MP for responding to constituents. She’s been involved in Parliament with issues she clearly cares about.

But her appointment has received a broad and general response from digital government observers of, “Really? Who?” Her former role as chief executive of the National Pony Society has led to inevitable gags about the state of digital as being a bit pony.

Before the election, the respected Institute for Government called for a digital minister to be appointed, with the experience and gravitas needed to drive through digital transformation. Computer Weekly issued a similar call, as did others.

So when Nokes was confirmed as being responsible for the Government Digital Service (GDS), the disappointment was justified. For one thing, hers is now a junior ministerial position, effectively a demotion in authority after Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer and his predecessors Matt Hancock and Francis Maude. There is no evidence on her CV of any experience of digital or technology.

And given her previous role as a minister in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), where she worked for the now Cabinet Office minister and first secretary Damian Green – and with former DWP digital chief Kevin Cunnington running GDS along with several of his key ex-DWP lieutenants in his leadership team – there’s a perception that DWP has won its long-running battle with GDS.

Let’s not forget how poor relations between DWP and GDS once were. DWP actively lobbied for GDS to be broken up after its former chief Mike Bracken left. When GDS was awarded a £450m budget in the November 2015 spending review, a senior DWP civil servant told GDS leaders they had taken his money and he would get it back. More recently, civil service chiefs had to broker a ceasefire and put processes in place to help the two organisations work together more productively.

So overall, Nokes starts – from the perspective of outside observers at least – on the back foot, with much to prove. Every one of those observers would, for sure, be very happy to applaud her if she proves to be the able minister that GDS so sorely needs.

In the spirit of wishing her well, here are Computer Weekly’s suggestions for some of the priorities that she needs to address in the early days of her new job.

Transformation strategy

Is the government transformation strategy, launched in February by Gummer who hailed it as a way to “restore faith in democracy”, still going ahead in its current form? If so, Nokes needs to be clear on how it is to be funded, and to turn a worthy strategy with little detail into a more detailed implementation plan, with clear priorities, targets and milestones.

Clarify the role of GDS and its funding

The unexpected general election prevented the Public Accounts Committee from conducting an investigation into GDS after the highly critical report from the National Audit Office in March. As such, GDS has also been protected from responding to the report, which highlighted numerous problems with GDS, not least clarification of its role and direction, and the limited uptake of several of its core projects.

For the sake of GDS, and for the progress of digital government, its purpose, priorities and plans need to be refocused. Is it an advisor, a standards-setting body, a startup-style disruptor, the lead digital developer, a consultant – or all of those, or some, or none?

In particular, questions around the budget for GDS need to be addressed.

GDS promised to deliver £3.5bn savings by 2020 in return for its £450m budget. The business case was predicated on three main programmes: £1.1bn of savings would come from Common Technology Services, which has been largely mothballed. Another £1.3bn was to come from government-as-a-platform services, which have received a lukewarm reception from Whitehall departments, and notably little take-up from the biggest departments that are needed to justify the business case.

And a further £1.1bn was to come from Verify, the increasingly controversial identity assurance scheme that is meant to have 25 million users by 2020 – it currently has only 1.3 million.

It seems extremely unlikely GDS will deliver the savings expected – so what does that do for its budget?

The future of Verify

Verify has become something of a lightning rod for critics of GDS – and not without justification. As the NAO pointed out, Verify has repeatedly missed targets and deadlines. Despite this, it was the centrepiece of the transformation strategy and was even included as a manifesto promise by the Conservatives – a reflection of Gummer’s belief in Verify, since he co-wrote the manifesto, before losing his seat in the election. And yet it is still not fully trusted by departments – as the NAO said, “Of the 12 departmental services connected to Verify as of February 2017, nine also allow access by other means”.

The target of 25 million users depends almost entirely on Verify being adopted by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) for its tax self-assessment service, which has 7.4 million registered users. HMRC clearly does not want to use Verify – but is being told by the Cabinet Office it has to use Verify instead of its own redeveloped Government Gateway online login system.

Several senior figures in digital government privately describe Verify as “a disaster”. Outsiders with knowledge of the Verify application say the software itself is a mess – even if it works. Identity experts have called for a pause in Verify to review the direction of identity assurance – it is such a critical aspect of delivering digital government, and yet outside of the Cabinet Office there seems to be little confidence in Verify as it stands.

Nokes needs to determine – perhaps as her first priority – what’s happening with Verify, and if it continues on its current path, how it will achieve the 25 million user goal.

Relationships between GDS and departments

People close to former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude – the man who set up GDS and gave it its initial remit and responsibility – say he is disappointed that GDS’s role as a strong centre for digital government has been eroded since his departure.

Some digital leaders in large departments are privately said to feel they don’t need GDS, and often deal with it only reluctantly. They are pleased that the spend controls, which allowed GDS an effective veto over their digital projects, are being relaxed, giving them greater autonomy.

But such views are usually accompanied by a willingness to work with GDS if the relationship is right. I’m told that departmental digital chiefs used to have a regular meeting in a Westminster pub, and spent most of their time moaning about GDS and sharing stories about the problems they’d experienced.

However, some have since said that they can see positive signs since Cunnington’s appointment last year – himself a former departmental digital leader.

For example, they like Cunnington’s digital academy as a means to help train civil servants – although this is another area that needs clarity. Cunnington said in October last year that he wanted to open four new locations for the training centre, yet still there are only the two he brought with him from DWP. One insider described the London academy as little more than a meeting room above Fulham Broadway underground station. Investment in rolling out the academy programme would help cement relations with departments.

Much of this issue circles back to the wider need to clarify GDS’s role – but for the wider development of digital government to make progress, that relationship between the centre and the departments needs to be agreed and made to work.

Brexit and digital government

Brexit per se is clearly outside Nokes’ remit – although her boss, Damian Green, is closely involved. But Brexit will have a huge impact on plans for digital government – just think of all the IT systems that will need to be adapted or redeveloped to meet the new realities of life outside the EU. From customs and immigration systems, to farm subsidies, to the proposed new identity cards for EU citizens residing in the UK post-Brexit – there are many, perhaps hundreds of digital systems likely to be affected.

What takes priority? The realities of Brexit, or the goals of digital government transformation? Is there a better way to bring the two together to use Brexit as an opportunity to genuinely transform the state of government IT?

These, like so many others, are critical questions to address. We wish minister Nokes well – she has much to keep her busy.

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