How digital will Theresa May's government be?

Now that the UK government – well, apart from the Labour party – seems to be returning to some semblance of business as usual following the extraordinary political upheavals of recent weeks, the tech community will be wondering where digital issues stand in new prime minister Theresa May’s priorities.

Her predecessor, David Cameron, often talked up digital policy and was a strong supporter of Tech City, while George Osborne was one of the prime movers behind policies on digital government and the digital economy.

You can easily question how much the two actually delivered, but there is little doubt they understood the importance of digital to the UK. The Government Digital Service (GDS), for example, was set up on their watch – itself an example of the occasional dichotomy between intent and achievement.

Is there anything from her time as home secretary that we can take for clues as to May’s opinions?

During her tenure, Sarah Wilkinson was recruited as the new Home Office CTO and Norm Driskell as chief digital officer (CDO) – both roles created as part of the GDS-led overhaul of IT leadership in Whitehall. More recently, towards the end of her time in the department she would have at least signed off on the internal review conducted by EY that led to this month’s merger of the CTO and CDO teams into one central unit (and to Driskell’s subsequent departure).

The impression given by insiders is that May is supportive of thorough, well thought-out proposals – she is said to have a good eye for detail – but there has been little evidence of any specific attitude towards digital developments, other than in how they support policies such as border control.

For example, May took the decision in 2010 to cancel the troubled £750m e-Borders programme – although that did, after five years of litigation, lead to supplier Raytheon winning £150m in compensation.

Online surveillance

But of course, her Home Office record will be judged in tech most of all by the Investigatory Powers Bill (IP Bill) – better known as the snoopers’ charter. If her apparent love of using technology for greater surveillance of our online activities is any indication, then people will be justifiably concerned.

There are calls now for a post-Brexit Britain to become a digital home for the world’s data – establishing open data protection rules and a world-class cloud infrastructure to attract inward investment. But the existence of the IP Bill makes that nigh on impossible – who would trust their data to a country with one of the most intrusive privacy regimes in the world?

Overall, her time at the Home Office offers few other clues.

To whom might she turn for advice? Probably not close political ally and chair of her Tory leadership campaign Chris Grayling, who – after Computer Weekly revealed that the Conservatives had deleted all their pre-2010 election speeches from the internetjustified the move on the basis that “there is a limit to how much you can put on your website”.

However, she has known Liam Maxwell – formerly government CTO and recently appointed as the UK’s first national technology advisor – for some time. May is MP for Maidenhead, and Maxwell was once a councillor at Windsor and Maidenhead Borough Council, so there is history there. We can only hope that gives Maxwell an open door to advise her on digital and technology issues.

Ministerial reshuffle

What clues are there in her ministerial reshuffle?

Ed Vaizey, in charge of broadband and digital economy issues for six years, got the boot, replaced by Matt Hancock,  previously Cabinet Office minister in charge of GDS and digital government. Vaizey was well respected by the IT sector – although widely criticised for his blinkered support of BT in the light of so many complaints about the telco’s superfast broadband roll-out.

Insiders have mixed views of Hancock. I’m told that when he first replaced Francis Maude – the creator and enforcer behind GDS – he quickly issued an edict restricting GDS staff from public speeches on policy, something that former GDS chief Mike Bracken had been used to doing, and previously encouraged to do.

Since then, Hancock has made a number of pro-digital speeches, which is a welcome move, but for some observers he has rarely been that insightful in his pronouncements. “He seems to say whatever his speechwriters give him,” said one insider, describing a recent talk as “shallow – the sort of speech that might have been impressive 10 years ago”.

It’s likely Hancock will be an equally vocal supporter of the digital economy in his new job, but we have yet to see him convert his obvious enthusiasm into actual policy and delivery.

He will have to oversee the government’s digital economy strategy – due out earlier this year but delayed, officially because of the referendum, but I’ve been told it was at least partly due to bickering between the many Whitehall departments affected. It’s a strategy owned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but which spans the whole of government – and Whitehall departments are renowned for their dislike of being told what to do by others.

The strategy will test both Hancock’s digital credibility and his collaborative skills in making it a success.

Future of GDS

Hancock’s departure from the Cabinet Office also raises inevitable questions – yet again – about the future of GDS. Little is known of his successor, Ben Gummer, the Ipswich MP known best among journalists as the son of former agriculture minister John Selwyn Gummer, who in 1990 publicly made his daughter eat a burger in front of the press to prove British beef was safe at the height of the “mad cow disease” scare.

Gummer, a history graduate, shows no obvious digital or technology experience on his CV, so it’s difficult to judge what his views may be. But his appointment does perhaps suggest that the role of Cabinet Office minister has returned to being a short-term stopping-off point for promising young ministers, rather than one that can actually make a difference.

David Cameron kept Francis Maude in the job for a full five-year parliamentary cycle, and gave him the authority to dictate to Whitehall – a political weight that was instrumental in establishing GDS and forcing departments to sign up to its spending and project controls.

I’ve already heard stories that some big departments are now starting to bypass those controls.

I wrote in this blog recently that Brexit offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to build the most digital government in the world as we reshape the state for a future outside the European Union – but such a move doesn’t seem to be on anybody’s priority list at the moment.

Admittedly, it is early days – but there is a sense of drift around digital in Whitehall.

GDS still has the £450m budget allocated by George Osborne in what proved to be his final spending review – but we are yet to see whether Theresa May will continue those plans or whether new chancellor Philip Hammond intends to shake up spending with a post-referendum Budget.

One very large and influential department in particular would like to see that GDS cash taken away from the centre.

GDS’s own strategy for spending that £450m has been delayed several times – contrary to speculation the plan does exist, and GDS is already working to it, but politically it is subordinate to the wider digital economy strategy initiated by Vaizey and now in Hancock’s brief. GDS is not allowed to publish its strategy until that wider plan is released.

Ploughing a digital furrow

GDS has evolved its remit since Bracken left, becoming more of a collaborative partner and digital support to departments, instead of the driving force it was under Bracken. That move is at least partly intended to keep the biggest departments – HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – onside. Both are mostly ploughing their own digital furrow, while keeping relations with GDS cordial.

But they and other departments still have their doubts about GDS, say insiders. There is a persistent perception that GDS is just a bunch of web and user experience developers, with insufficient understanding of the reality of big departmental systems. There has been talk about moving – the single government website that still ranks as GDS’s biggest success story – back under control of a department such as DWP, which has the biggest IT team. That’s a move GDS will resist as long as it has the ministerial backing to do so – Mr Gummer?

Other elements of Bracken’s GDS are being eased too – for example, the strict dividing line between “digital” and “technology” that led to the creation of separate CTO and CDO roles in several departments to replace CIOs. As the Home Office has decided, that artificial split is not necessarily the best structure. Bracken introduced that divide partly to break the hold of the old-school CIOs that he wanted removed. Even GDS is moving away from its former “digital, data and technology” structure, replacing “digital” as an organisational discipline with service design. But “digital” remains the uniting principle.

At the heart of GDS’s future plans is its interpretation of government as a platform (GaaP) – the development of common services such as payments, status notifications and identity assurance. There is a clear need for such applications – apparently DWP alone uses a huge variety of different payment platforms, so the operational and cost benefits are clear. But the word from some departments is they are unwilling to unpick all their existing systems to take advantage of the new GDS services.

The difficulty is best exemplified by Verify, the common identity system. Smaller departments will happily use Verify, but there is much more resistance from the departments that matter – HMRC, DWP and Health. All have a need for online identity, all are evaluating Verify, but insiders say that all have big doubts about its suitability for their needs.

Without at least one of those three departments buying in to Verify, its business model collapses. The independent identity providers that support Verify have signed up on the basis that government will deliver millions of users – for which they receive payment, and which they can use to build identity assurance services to sell to the private sector. Without those millions, the business case for those firms to invest in Verify looks very dodgy.

Francis Maude had the weight and authority to force the HMRC and DWP permanent secretaries to adopt Verify. Will Ben Gummer? Will Matt Hancock? Will Theresa May be bothered either way? These questions will determine the future of GDS under the new prime minister.

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