Why cybersecurity would lead a Labour government’s digital transformation agenda

As the Government Transformation Strategy enters its final year, PublicTechnology asked shadow cabinet office minister Jo Platt for her views on its rollout so far, and how Labour would deliver reform 

Credit: UK Parliament/CC BY 3.0

Since the 2017 general election, the MP representing this reporter’s constituency has submitted 35 written parliamentary questions. For comparison, the MP representing my previous constituency has submitted 87 such questions in that time.  The representative of the constituency I called home before that has submitted none at all since being re-elected in 2017.

Since joining parliament in June 2017 as the member for Leigh, Labour MP Jo Platt (pictured above) has submitted no fewer than 427 questions. 

In her role as shadow Cabinet Office minister – to which she was appointed in July 2018 – many of them have been directed at her counterparts in the central government agency, as well as at the ministers of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. 

Her questions have shone a light on the government’s ongoing failure to fill high-profile digital, data, and technology roles – including the chief data officer and chief security officer positions. 

She has also repeatedly taken the government to task over issues such as the UK’s post-Brexit cybersecurity plans, the duplication of citizen data, and plans for the looming end-of-support date for Windows 7.

The Government Transformation Strategy – published in February 2017, a few months before Platt was first elected – is now ticking into the final 12 months of its three-year timeline.

To assess the strategy’s success to date, and what remains to be done over the next year, PublicTechnology – in partnership with our sister title Civil Service World – spoke to a number of expert onlookers. 

A feature published in the current issue of CSW gathers their insights to assess progress so far, challenges faced, and where those who are driving the strategy forward – particularly the Government Digital Service – should focus their energies in the next 12 months.

We asked Platt for her thoughts on the strategy, and how her party would approach government reform.


PublicTechnology: Broadly speaking, is the Government Transformation Strategy ambitious enough?
Jo Platt: 
The biggest problem with the Government Transformation Strategy was that it identified the wrong ambitions and failed to confront the existing challenges that government was facing. This meant that, from the very start, the delivery of a meaningful transformation strategy was flawed, their failure to deliver on so many of their own ambitions just goes to prove this. 

What was needed in 2017 was a stock-take of the progress since GDS began and a renewed ambition statement. The government’s failure to recognise the changing forces within the civil service over that period set up this strategy for failure and the chaos we’ve seen across Government.

Is it targeted at the right areas, and are there any issues or areas that have been overlooked or poorly served?
The strategy was a poor deal for the public and has a number of substantial flaws. Most crucially it entrenched many of the government’s failures on digital procurement into a strategy. Instead of seeking to harness the British digital economy and foster innovation, this strategy bakes in the dominance of the megafirms into our digital infrastructure.

The strategy also seeks to open government data as widely as possible without imposing a social value test. Government data is a public asset and should be treated as such, but this strategy treats such data as a way of meeting targets, rather than delivering for the social good.

A number of areas were overlooked in the strategy, which we are already paying the price for. The strategy did not pay enough attention to the cyber risks facing government but instead seeks to plough on without confronting this growing danger. We know there is a critical shortage of cyber specialists in the civil service – where was the plan to remedy this? We know that the Government have no idea, for example, how many computers are still using Windows XP – where is the plan to get a grip on the situation? 

At the top of our list of priorities is securing government, quite clearly as the pace of digitalisation has increased in government, cybersecurity has not. Therefore, whilst it might not be a shiny, attractive policy statement, ensuring our fantastic civil service is cyber-ready is one of the first actions we would take in government.

Has enough progress been made on delivering the goals of the strategy, and what could be considered the notable successes or failures of the rollout so far?
It is inconceivable that this strategy could be interpreted as a success just based on its own ambitions. We still have no chief data officer, and we also still have no permanent chief security officer – two critical roles that should be priority number one, and they have totally failed.

On Verify, this strategy has not protected or remedied the number of flaws in the system, instead they cut their losses, relinquished themselves of all responsibility and gave it to the private sector.

On the digitalisation of 17 services, only six are fully live.

On the prevention of the duplication of citizens’ data, the government have failed to answer my questions of the subject which were due for answer in September – clearly, they have no answers, no plans and no clue what to say.

And on GDS, the strategy has totally failed to give the service the direction it needed. Its split across government departments only goes to reinforce the commonly held view that it has lost its way and this transformation strategy did nothing to prevent its decline.

This strategy has been a dismal failure which can all be traced back to the government’s failure to sort the existing challenges it was facing before it tried to seek any transformation.

How important is transformation – of processes, culture, and technology – for the future of government?
Transformation is undoubtedly imperative for government to evolve and reform to meet the challenges and embrace the opportunities that a vibrant digital economy presents. But any transformation strategy needs fertile ground on which to prosper. But failing to confront or even recognise the serious flaws and challenges across government, any strategy, however ambitious, will never succeed. Sadly, that’s exactly what we’ve seen with the 2016-2020 strategy.

How would a Labour government deliver transformation?
An incoming Labour government would have three initial objectives: fix the existing challenges across government; reassess the mission statements of every major project; and impose a social value test to ensure that whatever government does, it is for the public good.

At the top of our list of priorities is securing government, quite clearly as the pace of digitalisation has increased in government, cybersecurity has not. Therefore, whilst it might not be a shiny, attractive policy statement, ensuring our fantastic civil service is cyber-ready – with the specialists and resources that it needs to keep us and our data safe – is one of the first actions we would take in government.

On transformation more widely, we must recognise the enormous opportunity this presents for our wider economy and society. Therefore, we would use any transformation strategy to encourage and support British innovation. Transformation across government is not a tick-box exercise to meet targets or chase awards – if we get it right, it can be a force for good across the country that works for the many. 

Look out in the coming days for the full feature on the Government Transformation Strategy

Sam Trendall

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