GDS becomes political as Labour launches digital government review

Government IT – and in particular, the role of the Government Digital Service – is about to get political.

Tomorrow night, the Labour Party launches its digital government review, a programme designed to feed directly into Labour policy for the May 2015 general election.

The review is being led by shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah – herself an engineer, and former head of telecoms technology at Ofcom, and as such better qualified than most politicians to understand all things digital.

I met with Onwurah yesterday for a briefing on the review, and it’s clear there will be much debate generated by Labour’s perspectives on digital government.

What is Labour’s review all about?

According to a briefing document that Onwurah shared, the review has four areas of focus – and I’m quoting directly from the document here, so these are Labour’s words, not mine:

  • Digital government has the power to transform the relationship between the citizen and the state. But that is not what is happening now.
  • Labour’s Digital Government Review will set out clear and realistic goals for a digital agenda that will improve services and empower citizens while being efficient and cost effective.
  • The Review will recognise the good work of the Government Digital Service where it is successful, and suggest changes of direction where it is not.
  • We will identify an advisory board of the willing and able – well known and experienced industry insiders and stakeholders to review evidence and proposals around two workstreams:

Powering digital government – This will look at how to drive positive, progressive digital change through local and national government, including organisational, skills and technology/infrastructure issues.

Putting citizens in control – How to overturn the power relationship between government and citizens.

What does that all mean?

According to Onwurah, Labour’s main criticism of the Coalition’s digital policy is that it is too focused on cutting costs. She said Labour wants digital government to be more “progressive”, and focused on enabling citizens, rather just cutting costs (although recognising that cutting costs is a good thing too).

She said that digital should not be about imposing a way of working on the public sector – Labour is not fond of the “digital by default” mantra – but about supporting public service delivery.

She talked about a need to be more context-driven, rather than transaction focused. While the GDS focus has been on redesigning 25 “exemplar” transactions, Labour feels this is missing the complexity of delivering public services to the individual.

“The Tories assume that if you put it out there, then the market will just use it. But often, it needs more personalisation,” said Onwurah.

It is fair to say that the most frequent users of public services are often those on the wrong side of the digital divide. In an article for Computer Weekly last year, Onwurah wrote: “When this government decided upon the digitalisation of this [online job search] service they apparently did not take into account those with poor literacy skills, mental health issues or learning difficulties – who, as most people would have predicted, make up a higher-than-average proportion of the unemployed.”

She cited another example – elderly social care – where the role of digital government is a very different context to something purely transactional like applying for car tax online.

The role of GDS

I asked Onwurah about the role of the Government Digital Service (GDS). She was complimentary about its successes, but felt it has taken an approach that has, at times, alienated people at the coalface of service delivery – by which I took to mean staff in key Whitehall departments.

She claimed that GDS had been “scarred” by some of its experiences in working with departments, and cited Universal Credit and the DWP as the most obvious example.

She also called for a more “federated” approach to digital delivery, one that involves local government more. She said that GDS has been too central-government focused, while for most citizens, their local council is the face of everyday public services.

She also cited the frustrations of councils over security accreditation for the Public Services Network (PSN) as an example of the tension created between central and local government over digital services (although PSN is currently a Cabinet Office project, not GDS).

Labour is also critical of GDS’s apparent hostility to large IT suppliers. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has openly attacked the “oligopoly” of big IT companies, and GDS has a remit to open up the government IT market to SMEs, with a target to put 50% of all IT contracts through SME suppliers.

Onwurah said that it is an “exaggeration” to say that big IT suppliers are “the bogeymen of IT”. While Labour supports competition and creating opportunities for SMEs, she said that large suppliers “shouldn’t be locked out, but neither should they be locked in”.

She mentioned Fujitsu and HP – two suppliers who have faced particular criticism for their government IT work in the past – as likely contributors to the review. She was keen to point out that suppliers will play no role on the advisory board for the review, but they will be encouraged to make submissions as part of a general call for evidence.

What the review is not about

The review is tightly focused – it looks only at digital delivery of public services. It is not about digital economy issues or national infrastructure such as broadband or mobile networks. Nor is it about the role of technology in wider policy making (which I think is a shame – not one political party has yet grasped the opportunities here). The Labour digital government review runs alongside two related but separate reviews – one into the UK’s digital skills base, and another into the creative industries (such as copyright, etc).


There are strong arguments for and against the politicisation of digital government – a debate already played out in Computer Weekly between Onwurah and Mark Thompson, one of the architects of the Conservative technology policy that led to the creation of GDS.

Thompson feels that digital is apolitical and needs a common approach regardless of who is in power (he has also advised the Labour Party informally).

Onwurah countered that public services are inherently political, and as such, digital public services must be too.

I think it is a good thing that digital government is being discussed at a political level – it recognises its critical importance to the future of public services. But it mustn’t become a political football, driven by ideology. It will benefit nobody – least of all the citizen-users of public services – if we have a “Labour IT” approach and a “Tory IT” approach that changes with every change of government.

We do absolutely need a consistent strategy, with the fundamentals agreed upon and maintained regardless of politics.

Labour has picked up on the way the Tories have tried to turn “agile” into a way to bash the Opposition. Francis Maude and work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith have both talked of agile as if it’s some Conservative innovation that will save us all from the big IT failures of a previous Labour government obsessed with Big IT Projects.

Onwurah wrote in her article last year: “What I certainly do not support is the politicalisation of tools such as project management methodologies but that is exactly what this government is doing – characterising Waterfall as monolithic Labour and Agile as dynamic, entrepreneurial Tory.”

She is right to criticise Tory politics over agile – it certainly came back to bite Duncan Smith over Universal Credit – but it would be wrong to dismiss agile just because the Tories tried to claim it as their own.

Similarly, Labour must be careful not to be seen as swinging the balance back towards the big suppliers who deserve much of the criticism they have received over their role in government IT.

Labour’s biggest failing with IT in government was not in its choice of suppliers, but in outsourcing the IT skills needed to better run projects and manage those suppliers. The current government’s drive to re-skill and recruit IT expertise into Whitehall is the right move. Labour does at least recognise this – Onwurah agreed that, if the role of government is to govern, then you need civil servants who know how to govern IT every bit as much as you need them to govern any other policy.

I hope Labour will talk to GDS as part of its review. The internal politics of government and Whitehall mean that civil servants in Whitehall departments are kept very much at arm’s length from the Opposition. Only in the final 12 months before the general election will Labour be allowed to formally meet with civil servants in preparation for the prospect of becoming the governing party.

If Labour talks to GDS chief Mike Bracken and CTO Liam Maxwell, I think they will find that many of their concerns and ideas for improvement are shared.

Bracken is passionate about digital public service delivery and will, I would imagine, want the opportunity to involve local councils more, to personalise services more, to add the sort of context that Onwurah talked about, and to expand GDS’s existing digital inclusion team.

Bracken is unlikely to talk about his personal politics, but as a Scouser and Liverpool FC fan, a Hillsborough survivor, presumably brought up in 1980s Merseyside, a founder of digital advocacy group, and a former Guardian digital director – it’s up to you if you want to take a guess at how he’s likely to vote next year.

Maxwell is a former politician himself, a Tory local councillor. His voting intentions are probably pretty easy to guess.

But their political views don’t matter – the main thing that unites Bracken and Maxwell, and has become the driving force for GDS, is the question: “What is the user need?”

The Labour review’s two workstreams – powering digital government, and putting citizens in control – fit very much with how Bracken and Maxwell would describe the importance of user need.

Both of them would agree with the Labour statement that, “Digital government has the power to transform the relationship between the citizen and the state. But that is not what is happening now”. Both would say that is precisely what GDS hopes to achieve.

Both of them have been privately and often publicly critical of the attitudes and past role of big IT suppliers. But what they want is not to exclude big suppliers, but to see them change – to increase competition, reduce costs, end lock-in and receive better services. You can only achieve that by opening up more opportunities for SMEs as well.

I hope too that the Labour review considers the importance of open standards, and resists the efforts of certain suppliers to write the rules around their favoured standards.

Labour’s review is timely. The next 12 months will be critical for GDS and for digital public services – as the 25 exemplar digital transactions start to go live, the GDS model will be tested in the most public way possible. This is, therefore, a good time to step back and see what has worked, and what can be improved post-general election, no matter who wins.

But I hope that Labour does not see GDS and its methods simply as a Tory construction that needs to be changed for ideological reasons. I would urge Labour to consult with GDS leaders once they are allowed to do so – I suspect they will find more common ground than they might expect.

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