Is Number 10 waiting for Harry Potter to apply for the government CDO job?

For many years, the UK IT community pined for a government that wants to put technology at the heart of the country’s future; one that understands the importance of bringing digital and policy together; that sees the potential for tech to transform the UK for the better.

Well, now we have it, and it’s a nightmare.

Technological solutions would be the key to breaking the impasse over the Northern Ireland border, we were told during the interminable debates over Brexit. IT systems will now enable the free flow of goods at the border between Dover and Calais from the start of 2021, apparently. And we’re aiming to create trillion-dollar tech businesses as a result of our new-found economic sovereignty.

While we’re here, let’s not forget the world-beating contact-tracing app that was going to save us from further coronavirus lockdowns.  Oh, and we bought a bunch of satellites, for no apparent reason.

Sounds great, right? If only it had any basis in technological realism. What we have instead is a government that sees tech as a magical solution to every problem. Number 10 is still searching for a new chief digital officer – a search that began back in September 2019. Perhaps they are waiting for Harry Potter to apply.

Whoever gets the job needs to remind their political paymasters of one important point: getting technology right is hard. Of course, such pragmatism at interview may not go down well, but it needs to be said.

There are a lot of good digital projects going in in Whitehall – when IT works, it tends not to make it into the Daily Mail. Even departments that were once pilloried for their terrible tech, such the Department for Work and Pensions, are quietly transforming and modernising their approach, with some notable successes. The challenge is to make all government technology as good as the best of government technology.

What we seem to have is decisions being made by people who think they know a lot more about tech than they do; who look at Amazon, Apple, Google and think – well, that looks easy, let’s do that.

Some observers take encouragement from the new CDO role being ranked at the same level as a permanent secretary – the top job grade in the civil service. But as long as digital considerations remain an afterthought to political expediency, the seniority of the job won’t make a difference.

What’s needed is an experienced digital voice capable of applying realism, not magical thinking, when the political and policy conversations are taking place. Number 10 won’t like being told, but if the prime minister wants to create a truly digital Britain, he will need the inherently cautious pragmatism of someone who knows just how hard this stuff really is.

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