Drive to boost digital public services needs renewed political leadership after the election, says the Institute for Government
Lord Maude: the former Cabinet Office minister has largely steered clear of commenting on his successors’ work. Credit – PA
The next government must create a new minister for digital government to lead on its transformation strategy and fill the void left by the reforming ex-Cabinet Office minister Lord Maude, according to an influential think tank.
Maude’s five years at the Cabinet Office saw the creation of the Government Digital Service and a number of milestones reached on improved technology use in Whitehall, including the creation of the single GOV.UK website and the digitisation of voter registration.
But a new post from the Institute for Government’s programme director Daniel Thornton said that since the departure of Maude from the Cabinet office in 2015, the transformation drive had stalled across Whitehall.
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“As minister for the Cabinet Office from 2010-2015, Lord (Francis) Maude provided visible political leadership for digital government,” Thornton wrote. “After his departure, and for the past two years, there has been a lack of political leadership for digital government from the centre of Whitehall.”
Although the government set out a Transformation Strategy in February that aims to encourage a digital culture change in Whitehall, Thornton said there had been no prioritisation of the aims in the plan, which would require increased political leadership.
“Big decisions, such as about which system to use for verifying citizens’ identity across government, have been ducked. Unlike their predecessors, Theresa May and chancellor Philip Hammond have not spoken about digital government. Together with comments by Amber Rudd about “necessary hashtags,” it seems that senior ministers are not taking a keen interest in digital government.”
He highlighted that such political disengagement had consequences for services, such as the impact of last month’s WannaCry ransomware attack on the NHS, which could have been avoided with more up-to-date technology.
Although there has also been some progress in online services, with examples also included online payments for car tax, Thornton said there remained much more to be done to implement the Transformation Strategy, which required the creation of a dedicated minister.
“People are used to steady improvements in how they search for information, shop and bank online,” he said. “These improvements are provided by companies that have embraced digital technology and new ways of working. Government needs to do the same.”
Since leaving Whitehall, Maude has largely steered clear of directly commenting on the work of his successors. But amid a series of high profile departures at the Government Digital Service last year he told PublicTechnology that any move away from the GDS model would be a “black day” for the UK government.
“It is crucially important that whatever the personnel changes at GDS nothing is done to weaken that central authority,” he said.
“In particular cross-government platforms must continue to be designed and co-delivered from the centre, and mandated to be used across all of government except the security community.”