Here we go again - strap yourself in for the next 10-year ride in digital government transformation

There’s a new UK government, one with a comfortable majority, and it’s clear it wants to use that advantage for radical change.

The new prime minister says the government has “a mission to modernise” in order to “renew our country”.

“The old arguments about government are now outdated,” he says, adding that: “We are modernising our schools, our hospitals, our economy and our criminal justice system. We are modernising our democratic framework”.

To do this, there will be “a new drive to remove unnecessary regulation”. Within Whitehall there will be “a new focus on delivery – asking every Permanent Secretary to ensure that their department has the capacity to drive through achievement of the key government targets and to take a personal responsibility for ensuring that this happens. Bringing more people in from outside and bringing able, younger people up the ladder more quickly”.

Furthermore, “We will deliver public services to meet the needs of citizens,” says the new plan, which aims to “develop an IT strategy for government which will establish cross-government co-ordination”.

It’s what we all expect now in 2020 from the new Conservative government. Except… All this came from Tony Blair’s Modernising government strategy, published in March 1999.

Yeah, sorry – you probably saw that coming. OK, let’s bring things more up to date.

There’s a new government, one with a comfortable majority, and it’s clear it wants to use that advantage for radical change.

“Revolution not evolution” is the buzzword. Departments are told to look for cuts and to eliminate unnecessary projects. “Government needs to move to a ‘service culture’, putting the needs of citizens ahead of those of departments,” we are told. Recommendations are presented to Number 10 that have “radical implications”.

There will be “a new central team in the Cabinet Office in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels”. Note the phrase, “absolute control”.

There must be a new culture, to “challenge any policy and practice that undermines good service design”.

Soon after, the call goes out to recruit some of the very best and most talented individuals, with the encouragement that they will be helping to change the way that government works.

Yeah, I know. That was 2010, quoted from Martha Lane Fox’s report commissioned by then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, which heralded the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the drive for digital transformation across Whitehall.

So, here we are with a new government, one with a comfortable majority, and it’s clear it wants to use that advantage for radical change.

We’re told there are “profound problems at the core of how the British state makes decisions”. Government needs more skills in “data science, AI and cognitive technologies”. Number 10 is looking for “great software developers” to “work on these ideas, build tools and work with some great people”. Government wants to “to hire some very clever young people either straight out of university or recently out with extreme curiosity and capacity for hard work”.

Furthermore, “With no election for years and huge changes in the digital world, there is a chance and a need to do things very differently,” we hear.

You may have recognised these observations from Dominic Cummings’ rapidly infamous “weirdos and misfits” blog post that has been widely critiqued over the first week of the new year.

For all the Svengali-like commentary around Boris Johnson’s often controversial chief special advisor, is there really much that we haven’t heard before, in one form or another, in what he is saying?

Hey, he says – there’s a load of interesting new technologies that have come out in the last few years that we really ought to be making better use of.

The machinery of government is sclerotic and we need to make it easier to do things around here.

Let’s bring in a whole new load of engaged, enthused, talented young people with the promise that they will be able to really change the way the public sector works.

Sounds great – and very familiar – doesn’t it?

There is much to be cynical about in Cummings’ post, but no more than we were – and are – cynical about Blair’s ambitions, and Maude’s. We watched with fascination and sometimes with eyes half-closed from behind the sofa as GDS, especially during its early years led by Mike Bracken, attempted to break the mould (and indeed, the mold) of the Whitehall mandarin culture.

Someone once described the civil service as like a rubber ball. Press it hard enough and it will bend and change at will. As soon as you remove the pressure, it springs back into its original shape.

Nevertheless, we start what will perhaps prove to be another new 10-year cycle. Some of it sounds good and will work. Some of it sounds a little bonkers but is probably needed. And some of it won’t happen. But there is not much that’s really new.

One way or another, it’s going to be quite a ride – yet again – for those of us watching it.

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