Interview: Chi Onwurah, Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister

Labour's shadow cabinet minister, Chi Onwurah, offers a unique connection between technology and politics

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: The future of digital government in the UK

It is rare for a politician to have a background in technology rather than politics, but Chi Onwurah, Labour’s shadow cabinet minister for digital government, offers a unique connection between the two isolated topics.

If Labour gains power in the 2015 general election, the former Ofcom executive could potentially be a digital minister. 

After half an hour in her company, Onwurah's expertise and passion for government and social reform through digital is clear.

And it is Onwurah’s technology background which makes her different from other politicians – possessing almost a “technology empathy” towards citizens. 

Working all over the world – in London, Paris, Singapore and the US as an engineer – she says her proudest achievement was building a fibre and wireless network in Nigeria, reaching out to the state of Awka, which is where her father is from.

Fifteen minutes late for our interview and constantly checking her BlackBerry, Onwurah is initially cagey when asked what Labour’s first digital change would be if it was to be voted into power in 2015. She tells Computer Weekly we will have to wait until the manifesto is released, which will “no doubt” reveal all.

That said, it’s clear from the way she talks that the Labour party have got its key messages in order.

“We want to make digital universal,” says Onwurah. “The benefits we’ve seen in the private sector where digital has transformed so many different business models – that hasn’t really happened in the public sector.

“But in the next five years, we will see digital government come into its own. So my priority is to make that a progressive transformation, not regressive, authoritarian or merely cost stripping,” she adds.

During the run-up to the election, it is likely the coalition will hold up its Government Digital Service (GDS) as a trophy of digital government, but Labour’s take on digital is going to focus less on cost saving and more on digital for the good of the citizen.

GDS is 18 months into a two-year plan to digitise the most used public transactions based on their volume. But if Labour gains power, Onwurah says it would not choose the public transactions based on volume, but on social value.

“If we’re looking at where we might seek to focus resources in the future, it would be driven by the social value we’re creating,” says Onwurah. “Digital can create real social value if more people can take part and participate in the digital revolution.”

While she agrees that digitising the way citizens can gain a driver’s licence is great and has used the service herself, she thinks greater value lies in more social transactions, such as personal independent payments.

Going one step further, she would also like to plan the digitisation of these services from the ground up, by getting citizens to work collaboratively and help design services that they would use. 

But critics would counter that those citizens who would use these social transactions would be less likely to get involved in designing digital services in the first place.

Digital by default and the digital divide

Labour has already criticised the government’s at times bullish attitude towards getting the public to use digital services.

The current government has estimated it will save £1.8bn per year moving offline services to digital channels. This “digital by default” agenda, coined by cabinet minster Francis Maude, started in 2010 with the aim to introduce “online-only” public services.

It has since backtracked slightly, using the “digital by default” phrasing for public transactions, rather than enforcing the “online-only” terminology.

But Labour is still worried about the proportion of the country who cannot or will not go online – a staggering 11 million people across the UK.

“I think digital has many advantages and digital engagement should always be available generally,” says Onwurah. “But to take those advantages and to make them the only option is to exclude many citizens.

“And digital is not always the most effective form of engagement,” she adds, saying that in some circumstances citizens will want to report a problem in person and speak face to face, because it is more effective than going online. 

“People sometimes think the soft skills are just what they are, soft, but actually they can be much more effective ways of communicating,” she says.

Onwurah and the party have already shown support to the efforts of digital divide campaigners, commissioning a digital skills task force to look into the lack of digital skills in Britain.

“The current government states that 10% of people in the UK will never be digitally included – I still can’t believe it when I say it. One of the things we’re looking at – if we get that down to as low as we can – is the social value that’s released, and the savings too,” she says.

Praise for the Government Digital Service

The digital divide aside, Labour admits GDS has been doing great work to digitise public services. “The work they’re doing is fantastic and we need that to continue,” says Onwurah.

“It’s really important to ensure the work that the GDS is doing is really important and something we want to build on,” she adds.

But while Labour has spoken out about how it would build on the work GDS has done, Onwurah is clearly wary of commenting on the future department structure.

We’re going to be focusing on making government an intelligent customer and intelligent customers expect high standards of delivery and engagement from their suppliers

Chi Onwurah, Labour

“I was working for Ofcom in the run-up to the previous election and I remember how annoying it was to have the discussions of whether Ofcom would continue.” 

At the time, David Cameron wanted to abolish the communications regulator, but then realised he couldn’t do without it, she explains.

It was after her six years at Ofcom that Onwurah entered the House of Commons in 2010. Until that point, her background has been more about technology than politics, even learning how to code at Newcastle's Kenton School when she was just 11.

Labour’s digital government review

This technology background clearly makes Onwurah the perfect person to lead Labour’s review into digital government, which hopes to give more insight into future Labour digital policy.

The first stage of the review was to ask suppliers, public bodies and any interested parties to share their digital priorities for the future of government.

Many IT suppliers – both large and small – contributed, but Labour stated that some of the submissions were received under the request of confidentiality. 

Coincidentally, the biggest IT suppliers were nowhere to be seen – HP, Capgemini, BT, Capita, Fujitsu, Atos, IBM and CSC have been listed as the IT and telecoms suppliers that earn the most from government contracts.

While Onwurah can’t comment specifically on their requests, she says large suppliers in the market in general are concerned about the government’s approach to procurement, which is reducing the oligopoly of big suppliers and encouraging SMEs into the market to spend less on IT.

“Some of these concerns are valid,” she says. “But I don’t believe in ideology when it comes to technology.”

Onwurah notes that by encouraging more SMEs and competition into the market, suppliers have realised they might not get it so easy in the near future.

“But equally if large suppliers are hoping for a return to the approach of outsourcing everything to single large suppliers, I think that approach has a number of failings, not least it tends to de-skill the public sector which needs skills to maintain contracts and remain an intelligent customer,” she says.

Onwurah believes strongly in a mixed economy and getting the best supplier for the specific requirement the government needs, making government an intelligent customer.

“Intelligent customers don’t allow themselves to be locked in and overly dependent on suppliers,” she says.

Onwurah explains that Labour would look at every government contract and every supplier on its merits, and wouldn’t have an “ideological ban” on certain suppliers.

“We might have an effective ban on some suppliers if their record of delivery is very bad,” she adds. 

“But it’s very important for suppliers to get the message – we’re going to be focusing on making government an intelligent customer, and intelligent customers expect high standards of delivery and also of engagement from their suppliers.”

IT expenditure

Onwurah points out that the great thing about technology is that costs reduce every year.

“Look at how much a mobile phone cost 20 years ago – I was part of the great challenge of developing a $50 standard phone, now they’re talking about a $50 smartphone,” she says.

Onwurah says Labour wants to realise those costs savings to enable government to do more for the same money.

“This government thinks of shrinking the estate, making it smaller and more important. We look at it changing how the state works, so it works with people,” she adds.

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