Election manifestos reveal only a few clues to the future for digital government

It’s easy to read too much into any party election manifesto, but the Conservatives’ plans – should they win the election, as the polls suggest they will – offer plenty of scope for speculation around the next steps for digital government.

Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer was closely involved in writing the Tory manifesto, and his hand is certainly apparent in the recognition of digital being highlighted as one of the “five great challenges” faced by the UK over the next five years. Gummer is, after all, a man who sees digital transformation as a means to “restore faith in democracy”.

It will be interesting to see how the timing of the election affects the Government Digital Service (GDS), which sits at a crossroads in its evolution, after being heavily criticised in March by the National Audit Office and told by the watchdog that it needs to redefine its role.

Nine months into his reign, GDS chief Kevin Cunnington has completely overhauled his leadership team. Insiders suggest the changes at the top have not fully filtered down to the troops, but the start of a new parliamentary cycle offers an opportunity to drive forward afresh.

Cunnington is redefining the scope of GDS’s responsibilities – in particular, much of the legacy of former CTO Liam Maxwell is slowly being dismantled.

The role of CTO itself appears to have been abandoned, with no apparent prospect of a replacement for Maxwell’s successor, Andy Beale, who left GDS earlier this year.

The Common Technology Services (CTS) team – set up to roll out better technology for civil servants and to advise departments on ending their large outsourcing deals – has been mothballed, according to several sources, now that its director, Iain Patterson, has left. CTS is continuing certain existing projects, but not taking on any new work, say sources, who claim that Cunnington never saw CTS as part of GDS’s future.

It’s worth noting that as part of the £450m budget GDS was given in the 2015 spending review, the CTS programme was projected to deliver £1.1bn of the forecast £3.5bn savings to be achieved in return.

Computer Weekly asked the Cabinet Office to confirm the status of CTS, but they were unable to comment due to the “purdah” rules that prevent Whitehall discussing future government plans during an election period.

Meanwhile, Maxwell’s other big initiative, spend controls – responsible for a significant portion of the savings GDS claims to have made from government IT costs – has been watered down, handing greater control back to the departments the policy was intended to rein in.

The Tory manifesto gives only a few clues as to where GDS – and wider digital government plans – go next. Much is simply repeating the past.

“We will create a new presumption of digital government services by default”, it says – replacing the old and presumably identical presumption that’s been in place for the last five or six years.

“We will publish operational performance data of all public-facing services,” says the document – presumably that’s the Gov.uk Performance Dashboard that’s been around for some time.

There are references to open data, publishing more information online, and rationalising the use of personal data – which presumably tee-up the imminent appointment of a chief data officer (CDO), for which recruitment has been underway for a few months.

Notably, sources suggest the new CDO will also be positioned outside of GDS.

A few eyebrows were raised to see a specific commitment in the manifesto to Gov.uk Verify, the sometimes controversial online identity assurance scheme. Plenty of outside observers have questioned progress on Verify, some calling for a formal review, but minister Gummer clearly remains a strong supporter.

Perhaps the most interesting manifesto line, in the context of digital government, is the most vague: “We will incubate more digital services within government and introduce digital transformation fellowships, so that hundreds of leaders from the world of tech can come into government to help deliver better public services.”

The use of “incubate” is interesting – past manifestos might have used the word “develop”. Does this suggest a desire to push more development out to suppliers?

What exactly is a “digital transformation fellowship”? Given that so many IT contractors have stepped back from government IT work after the April reforms of IR35 tax laws, is this simply a way to bring them back? Is it some new status of employment that allows Whitehall to pay private sector market rates for IT professionals to get over the limits imposed by civil service pay structures?

Cunnington has been leading a review of digital jobs, skills and pay structures, so perhaps this is one of the fruits of that work.

The Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos both demonstrate commitment to digital government, but contain few specifics and even less detail than the Tory plans.

We can conclude with some confidence that work on Verify and other common platforms will press ahead after the election, but we will have to wait to see whether there are further changes in the structure and delivery of digital government.