If position in the civil service is everything, where does digital really sit?

As the UK’s first director general for digital heads for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, and the Government Digital Service struggles to maintain its footing at the centre, David Walker asks what the reality is for government digital.

Digital will make progress, but only in fits and starts, says David Walker – Photo credit: David Walker

If you were locating a new director general for digital with a strong background in cyber security, you might think the Cabinet Office would be a sensible choice. For a start, its minister, Ben Gummer, has security as well as digital engagement and expansion in his portfolio.

But the appointment is instead being made in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Perhaps it is, as they say, no accident that among the ministers to whom the new man will answer, is the very energetic former Cabinet Office minister (and digital enthusiast) Matt Hancock.

On the record, Gummer, Hancock and the appointee, former ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould, would all firmly say departmental assignments are secondary: the government has a common digital commitment and we will all be working happily together.

Look at the bigger picture, they would say. Change is coming to public services, more slowly than we might wish, but it’s unavoidable. They might even use the ‘T word’ – transformation – holding up citizen interaction with the Drivers and Vehicles Licensing Agency and (intake of breath pending Brexit effects) Her Majesty’s Passport Office.

But civil servants know that position in the pecking order matters a lot, and one department’s gain can be another’s loss. Hancock and Gummer may be constituency neighbours but these Mayite Conservatives with similar backgrounds are also rivals.

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The name of the game, for most outside the Treasury, is your minister’s proximity to Number Ten and your policy’s salience. (Brexit has complicated things – civil servants working for David Davis and the other Brexiteers are conflicted and said to be unhappy.)

With digital you can either take the grand sweep (It’s coming – it’s only a matter of time) or you see that what happens next depends a lot on the machinations of ministers and bureaucratic alignments.

When we hear new GDS leader Kevin Cunnington talk of his ‘cunning plan’ we need to ask whether his ministerial boss has the clout to deliver across Whitehall.

In a recent speech, Gummer did promise a big announcement in the New Year. We need to boost “people’s faith in government”, he said: lack of it lay behind the Brexit vote. Improved digital interaction is central to restoring confidence.

Departments have been known to make an effort on digital if they are forced to, most often by a strong prime minister or Treasury spending pressures. And occasionally a Cabinet Office minister punches through, with Francis Maude being a fond memory for some.

Theresa May’s strength is contingent, like everything else, on Brexit. It’s possible – maybe even likely – that she will turn her attention to the public services and look for some grand plan or branding from a reform plan. But Number 10 will put the other business first.

As for the Treasury, it pays lip service to digital opportunities, but little more. John Kingman, who stepped down as second permanent secretary earlier this year, gave an intriguing public speech to the Strand Group recently, assessing his former department. By my count, the word digital crossed his lips just once.

And so the signs suggest digital will only see progress in fits and starts, with departments and agencies increasingly autarkic.

Former Department for Work and Pensions man Cunnington knows how formidable the silo walls are. His proposed creation of a digital, data and technology profession would not break them down. The other government professions (law, economics, engineering, statistics and so on) answer to permanent secretaries in departments first; pan-Whitehall vocational networks are a distant second.

Today’s digital reality is that GDS struggles to influence what departments may or may not choose to do.

An acid test for government digital was, and remains, getting alignment with health, and the marriage (platonic if not physical) of GDS and NHS Digital – something else Cunnington knows to be true.

At a recent press briefing he talked about creating a national presence for GDS, saying intriguingly that he wanted GDS to infiltrate the conversations between his old department and NHS Digital, which is based in Leeds.

But he will have a hard time making this happen: nothing has changed yet, nor is it likely to. The latest evidence comes from the publication of the first Sustainability and Transformation Plans for English health regions. These are NHS England’s bid to both regionalise and join up health providers and commissioners and local government.

They could have been (might still be?) an opportunity to localise and push forward digital take up. But if Birmingham’s just-published plan is any guide, a digital future is not yet beckoning. Data sharing, digitisation of records and a single, data-enhanced patient pathway through the jungle get no mention.


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