That the long-awaited digital strategy has fallen by the wayside is not a surprise, but ministers must move to demonstrate their commitment to digital quickly, writes PublicTechnology’s online editor Rebecca Hill.
This year has been dominated by the UK’s vote to leave the European Union – from the constant speculation and muck-slinging in the run-up to the referendum, to the recriminations and discussions of how to stretch Whitehall’s already shrinking budget even thinner afterwards.
So it came as no surprise that we saw the government’s long-promised digital strategy get pushed further and further back – but it is disappointing that it seems to have been pushed so far down the agenda it’s fallen off.
At first, the delay seemed sensible. Speaking before the referendum, one civil servant told PublicTechnology that the strategy was pretty much done and dusted – perhaps had the vote gone the other way the strategy would have come out sooner.
But the biggest political shake-up the UK has seen in decades necessitated a delay as the civil service came to terms with new priorities, new departments and machinery of government changes ushered in by new political leaders and their agendas.
Indeed, many people called on the government to entirely rethink its strategy after the vote, with industry representative body TechUK saying the strategy needed to be “rewritten”.
Commentators pointed out potential problems of recruiting people with the right digital skills, access to the single market for tech companies, and changes to procurement rules and data protection regulations.
And the impact the referendum has had on the Whitehall machine cannot be underestimated.
“Because Brexit” isn’t good enough for a strategy that’s been in the works this long
Speaking to PublicTechnology back in July, Labour MP and former shadow minster for the digital economy Chi Onwurah warned that Brexit would be a distraction, asking how there would be the “headspace and civil service resource” to think about digital transformation when the focus of government’s work had shifted so much.
Of course she was right: the last six months have been dominated by efforts to find resources and staff for new units and departments, while the intense media scrutiny of the process has led to extreme caution – and even paranoia – on the part of the government.
All of which has no doubt slowed down the internal processes needed to get sign off on any strategy and allowed attention to be diverted elsewhere.
But “because Brexit” isn’t really good enough when it comes to a strategy that has been in the works for more than a year. Worse still is that if government got digital right, it could change the way Whitehall works for the better, cut costs and improve service provision – all of which are things you could use to argue that the strategy is more, not less, important right now.
Little wonder, then, that critics have reacted with dismay at the latest delay, upbraiding the government for lacking digital ambition and trying to lower expectations.
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A digital transformation for government workers
Departments have been told time and again that throwing huge wads of cash at the same five or six IT suppliers and getting locked into contracts that don’t foster any real innovation is not a sustainable way of working in this technological age. Or a particularly effective way of providing the best services to an increasingly tech-savvy nation in times of continued austerity.
But with the backing of former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, not to mention the strong personalities that set up the Government Digital Service, there seemed to be real movement away from this.
They might not have been popular – although one could argue that trying to persuade the lumbering Whitehall machine to change is not really the time or the place to engage in a popularity contest – but they seemed to be making a difference.
It is absolutely right that the relationship between the departments and GDS at the centre had to change and mature – the stick won’t work forever and aggravating too many people along the way won’t help your cause in the long-run.
So when staff at GDS started making comments about being “less arrogant”, it seemed like a welcome and sensible move. However, the surprise replacement of Stephen Foreshew-Cain at the helm sent shockwaves through the civil service, from colleagues at GDS to those elsewhere in Whitehall.
Some of it was bluster – even scare-mongering – and some was political point-scoring, but some was genuine concern, and comments from new director general Kevin Cunnington since he started at the service do indicate that we can expect a marked change to the way the service operates.
And the information that is leaking out about the plans for the digital strategy – which morphed into first a government digital transformation strategy and then into a government transformation strategy – goes along with this.
It indicates a shift from “revolution” to “evolution”; from tight spend controls to “collaborative” conversations on spending; and from solely agile working back to one that incorporates elements of waterfall.
State of limbo
There appear to be few concrete action plans in the draft document and it has been suggested that the strategy was not published last Friday as expected so that these concerns can be addressed.
If so, we should give praise where it’s due to ministers for heeding advice and risking the public backlash that came with holding it back – but we must also question how the document got to such an advanced stage without such targets.
For a strategy to have been worked on for so long, and yet to still have so little to say that excites – or challenges – people, leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Not to mention that nothing feeds speculation like constantly changing the goalposts when it comes to major policy documents, and ministers and civil servants – and their communications teams – must realise this.
Ministers now need to send out a strong and positive message about the government’s commitment to digital, and GDS needs to be empowered to continue to push departments to be the best version of themselves.
The start of next year must see the publication of a strategy that clearly defines the role of the centre in digital transformation and lays out a set of targets that government can evaluate its progress against – even if they have to be broad.
But most of all, it must free all those passionate civil servants working in digital from this state of limbo.