Do not leave digital government development to Whitehall, says Chi Onwurah MP

Whitehall should not be left with sole responsibility for the government drive to building a digital future, says shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah

The development of the government as a platform (GaaP) model cannot be made entirely by Whitehall, according to MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, Chi Onwurah.

Speaking at a recent Westminster eforum, shadow Cabinet Office minister Onwurah explained the digital services framework, G-cloud and online services are good steps forward – but it will be difficult to address everyone if left entirely to Whitehall.

Onwurah said that, although plans including GaaP are being made to develop digital interactions with government, the issue over digital exclusion remains.

“We need an approach to digital that embraces the unique role of the public sector in treating people as citizens rather than just consumers, and dedicating itself to long-term inclusion as well as short-term targets,” she said.

“Technology treated in isolation from society can worsen many of the problems it purports to solve.”

Tackling digital exclusion

The government as a platform model was developed as an idea by Government Digital Service (GDS) to prevent public sector bodies from working in silos and repeating development for systems that could be used elsewhere, such as booking or payment platforms.

But the “digital by default” mantra that comes along with it has been criticised in the past for leaving more vulnerable people unable to use services – often when they are the ones who most need them.

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Onwurah highlighted that 10% of the population will still not be able to access online digital services, despite the efforts of the GDS to make services online, open and agile.

“We need digital government and digital government services to be enabling, to be empowering, to be a step forward in the relationship between government and citizens,” Onwurah said.

Citizens must control their own data

She put great emphasis on allowing the public to own their own data and use it to drive a more self-sufficient population.  

“Public sector data is the people’s data, and should be owned by the people rather than them being left on the sidelines hoping that it isn’t sold to the highest bidder.” said Onwurah.

“As data becomes one of the most sought after commodities driving new business models, it’s essential that citizens feel that they are in control of it.”

Peter Wells, project lead for Labour’s digital government review, pointed out that digital development is focused more on efficiency than “value to society.”

He said the most skilled people should be deployed to develop the services that contribute most value to society, rather than cutting the most cost to Whitehall.

“We are building the future, we’re laying the groundwork for our digital infrastructure,” Wells said.

“We’ve got to do the hard stuff in there and not just the easy stuff.”


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