No apologies – digital government is political

Shadow Cabinet Office minister, Chi Onwurah, answers criticisms over Labour's digtial strategy

In response to my recent speech announcing a Labour review of digital government, Mark Thompson has accused me of politicalising Digital Government. 

Mark is a senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School and strategy director at consultancy Methods. We agree on many things, including the importance of open data, open standards, supplier competition and modular architectures.

But, perhaps not surprisingly, given that Mark wrote the Conservative Technology Manifesto, I do not agree with his views on digital government.

Digital government is political

Digital Government is political. Government is political, it is politics that determines what gets done or not done in government and government is above all about doing, and not doing things. Let me give an example.

My local libraries have experienced a big increase in the demand for their free internet service, as government’s "digital by default" system requires those on benefits sign on or undertake mandatory job searches online. The only problem is that many are among the 18 million UK citizens who do not feel comfortable online. So the libraries, and many local charities, do their best to help.

Newcastle libraries have suffered significant cuts. Newcastle City Council has lost £110 million pounds out of its grant, a third of its income over three years. But the librarians know that if these "service users" do not sign on, or complete their job search, they will be ‘sanctioned’ - left with no benefits for eight weeks, and will therefore have nothing to live on.

I put the term "service user" in between quote marks as the terms seems to add insult to injury when applied to people forced to use an essential service without the right skills.

Poor literacy skills

When this government decided upon the digitalisation of this service they apparently did not take into account those with poor literacy skills, mental health issues or learning difficulties

So the librarians take time out of their already stretched day jobs to help them. At West End library they have even designed a form  for when the government site is down or inaccessible, or the ‘service user’ just can’t use it – a regular occurrence - so they won’t be sanctioned.

The form does not exist officially because when this government decided upon the digitalisation of this service they apparently did not take into account those with poor literacy skills, mental health issues or learning difficulties – who, as most people would have predicted, make up a higher-than-average proportion of the unemployed.

Digital exclusion 

That is political. Leaving people with nothing to eat in 2013 is political. Digital exclusion is political. Digital government with digital exclusion is a return to a late 18th century model of democracy within a narrow elite. And that is political.

Mark asks what is the difference between Labour’s 2009 Digital Report and this government’s digital service. That one is different. Labour’s Universal Broadband Pledge was abandoned by this government together with much of the funding for digital inclusion. That was a political decision, and our response must be political also.

Project management has become politicised

What I certainly do not support is the politicalisation of tools such as project management methodologies but that is exactly what this Government is doing – characterising Waterfall as monolithic Labour and Agile as dynamic, entrepreneurial Tory.

But I have sat in meetings where civil servants parrot this view, as if Waterfall, Big bang, Agile, PRINCE, Six Sigma, Microsoft project itself, were not part of an ongoing evolution as we learn – or try to learn – how to develop and deploy ICT in a way that does the least harm and the most good.

Yes, Labour faced real challenges in ICT procurement, particularly an emphasis on a centralised, integrated service delivery/customer management approach. Yes all customers need genuine supplier choice (are you listening BDUK?) but to think that the solution to effective ICT deployment is to simply change your project management methodology is arrogant and naive. 

Having worked as an engineer and managed both big software development projects and global ICT deployment, I can say that no one should embark upon either with the level of arrogance this government has displayed.

Labour's plans digital with more humility 

It is right to be passionate. How else will we get the job done, but the next Labour government will set about digital transformation with more humility. We know it will be a long journey, requiring diverse methodologies, transport, support, skills and infrastructure. And most importantly we know we will learn from the process itself and continue learning, the citizen-user, the frontline ‘street bureaucrats’ and the departmental IT Managers will teach us what they need. 

That focus on empowering civil society through relational technology development and deployment is political. And I make no apologies for that.

Chi Onwurah is Labour's shadow Cabinet Minister.

Read more on IT strategy