Digital government gets election kicking

Technology transformation in the public sector, as government goes online, is coming under renewed and intense scrutiny in the run-up to the general election, writes John Lamb


With a general election only five months away, the public sector’s digital services have once again become a political football.

Politicians and groups keen to influence them are kicking around digital strategies designed to boost the business of government and get better value from the £14-£16 billion annual state spending on IT, as well as giving citizens more power over their lives.

The Labour party has just published an independent report called Making Digital Government Work for Everyone, commissioned by shadow cabinet office minister Chi Onwurah. It argues for a people-centric approach, recommending that government should train 4.9 million people in digital skills over the five years of the next parliament in order to ensure they gain the benefits of being online.

Echoing concerns over data privacy and security in the wake of the Snowden revelations of intrusive surveillance by the US National Security Agency, the report also argues for the introduction of an ethical framework to win back trust in IT. In addition, government departments rather than the central Government Digital Service should take responsibility for digitising their services with digital transformation becoming a cabinet-level responsibility.

“We are at a critical moment for the evolution of digital services in the UK, and we face critical questions about technology and democracy. Who is technology for: the geek elite or those who need the greatest support?” says the report’s author Tom Chatfield.

The Liberal Democrats are also concerned about privacy. The party’s manifesto will argue for a ban on the mass collection of data from British residents by police and security services, and an insistence that powers of surveillance are not extended without parliamentary approval.

During the 2010 election, the Conservatives made the running with a programme of reforms which saw the creation of the Government Digital Service to oversee the transfer of paper-based services online. Cabinet office minister Francis Maude launched gCloud to automate the business of buying digital services and to open government business up to a wider group of suppliers.

He also presided over the introduction of agile development methods to speed up the business of developing applications and ensure smaller companies have a bigger share of government business. And he attempted to spread the really big central-government outsourcing contracts among more suppliers.

OLD FAILINGS REMAIN

The Conservatives, like Labour, have yet to publish their manifesto, but it is clear the coalition government’s current programme is still a work in progress. Some of the old failings remain. For example, the flagship IT project to amalgamate tax and benefits payments in universal credit is currently running late and over budget.

“The Department for Work & Pension’s unacceptably poor management of this programme has wasted time and taxpayers’ money, with a staggering £600 million spent in four years just to get to the first stage of business case sign-off,” according to Public Accounts Committee chairwoman Margaret Hodge.

Politicians have no excuse for ignorance about the deficit-busting benefits of digital government

“Politicians have no excuse for ignorance about the deficit-busting benefits of digital government, which entails overturning our traditionally organised public-service infrastructure in favour of open standards and the consolidation of procurement,” says Mark Thompson, a lecturer in ICT systems at Cambridge Judge Business School and an adviser to the Cabinet Office.

In the absence of manifestos from the main parties, lobby groups have filled the gap with their own. techUK has produced a three-point plan which calls for closer engagement with civil servants, better information about public-sector contracts and more innovation, which would involve giving civil servants more freedom to experiment.

“The challenge now comes in the detail of execution, and in ensuring that those holding the pen on political party manifestos understand and recognise the size of the prize of digital for the next government,” says Anthony Walker, techUK’s deputy chief executive.

He believes the key to digital government lies in improving the civil service’s technical and commercial skills. Mr Walker also argues that every department should have a digital minister reporting on efforts to grow the UK’s digital economy. In addition, techUK wants to find room for new posts including a chief privacy officer and a digital trade tsar at the Foreign Office.

Mr Walker’s ideas could soon be put to the test as a raft of central-government contracts comes up for replacement. For example, the HM Revenue & Customs’ ten-year-old contract with Cap Gemini and Fujitsu for the Aspire tax system, the biggest deal in central government, is due to expire in 2017. By then HMRC will have forked out £10.4 billion compared with the £4.1 billion the system was originally estimated to cost.

HMRC is expected to follow government guidelines by breaking up the new contract and sharing it among a wider group of suppliers. The department intends to be more closely involved in developing a replacement and has opened a new Digital Delivery Centre in Newcastle upon Tyne. However, the National Audit Office recently criticised the slow progress the department was making towards putting new arrangements in place.

Belief in the ability of digital services to transform government services is still strong, despite the difficulties in moving away from monolithic management practices. The question remains whether this particular football finds its way into the net or is just kicked into the long grass.