Return of old Whitehall divisions is scuppering GDS’ good work, warns Martha Lane Fox

Cross-bench peer hopes UK Digital Charter could help create ‘Geneva Convention for the web’

Martha Lane Fox claims that ‘the good work being done to help the government modernise… is being dismantled’  Credit: PA

Cross-bench peer and former UK digital champion Martha Lane Fox has warned that the achievements of the Government Digital Service are being nullified as old divisions within Whitehall come to bear. 

In a speech to the House of Lords, baroness Lane-Fox of Soho saluted the accomplishments of GDS since its founding in 2011.

“Our Government Digital Service has shown how digital understanding can be applied to the world of government, from scrapping our paper car tax discs to simplifying the appointment for power of attorney,” she said. “It has also shown us what not to do: it saved us £4.1bn by not creating expensive and complicated apps, and salvaging doomed projects like Universal Credit.”

But she warned that partitions which GDS has worked to break down are being rebuilt, and profligate habits are returning to Whitehall.

“The good work being done to help the government modernise – and to make it work for people who live their lives digitally – is being dismantled, she said. “Departmental silos are creeping back, replicating cost and inefficiency and, most importantly, letting down citizens.”

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Lane Fox added: “GDS is celebrated and copied around the world. Last year we were ranked top for digital government by the UN. How ironic if we fail to recognise and nurture this great asset.”

The founder went on to cite a number of examples of public sector “pioneers” that are leading the way in promoting digital skills. These include The Open University, which “makes digital literacy integral to its students’ experience”, she said, and the Citizens Advice Bureau, which has implemented a digital dashboard displaying popular searches. 

“I call on government to support and amplify the good things that are happening and to bring these people together in a more structured way,” she said. “How about we create a network of public organisations that can more tangibly build our nation’s digital understanding? Much of their work is admirable, but it is coordination and focus which will embed digital understanding in the fabric of our lives. Perhaps, too, this network could have a more formal role as a resource for elected and public officials needing support.”

The baroness praised the government’s ongoing work to create a Digital Charter for the UK. She added that if other countries followed suit, this could help the global community draw up treaties defining rules of engagement for the online world.

“The digital landscape, as we know, is currently monopolised by a few American based platforms – though the Asian digital tigers may soon join them. They are steeped in the worldview of Silicon Valley, with its love of the first amendment and libertarianism,” she said. “The Charter is a chance for us to say what we want for Britain. I hope by leading on this, we will encourage each nation to build a Charter of its own – an articulation of the digital nation it wants to be.

Lane Fox added: “And then we can all, globally, find our commonalities – and create the basis of a kind of Geneva Convention for the web. I believe that we must come together and attempt to put some universal principles in place for the next phase of our digital world.”


Sam Trendall

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