Digital agenda "must not get sidetracked" by election uncertainty, says key industry body
TechUK warns that chunks of the Conservative manifesto will be "watered down, or jettisoned altogether" to make it through parliament
The UK's biggest technology trade association, Tech UK, has said the political fallout from the general election must not result in the government's digital reform plans going off-track.
After much delay, this year saw the launch of the Government Transformation Strategy, which aimed to map out the next steps in the digitalisation of public services and the upskilling of the government workforce.
But last week's uncertain general election result has cast doubt over those plans, and has seen the appointment of Damian Green as the third new minister for the Cabinet Office - the role which includes the government transformation brief - in just two years.
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The difficult parliamentary arithemetic thrown up by the election, with the Conservatives now reliant on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party to govern, has also raised questions over the future of key schemes like HMRC's Making Tax Digital.
The government had already curtailed the Finance Bill containing those plans in a bid to get key measures through Parliament before the election, and the DUP has raised its own concerns about the timetable for the flagship digital reform.
Responding to the result, Tech UK’s head of public affairs Tom Morrison-Bell said that while the Conservative manifesto had contained an "unprecedented focus on the digital economy", there were now "significant question marks "over which parts of the Conservative manifesto the new minority Government will attempt to deliver on".
"The manifesto has been cited by many commentators and Conservative MPs as a significant factor in the failure to win a majority,” it said. “As such, significant parts will be rowed back on to placate backbenchers and other parts will be watered down, or jettisoned altogether, in the attempt to get legislation through a hostile Parliament."
The industry body - which represents 900 tech companies employing more than 700,000 people - said it expected to get “a better sense of the Government's agenda” after next week’s Queen’s Speech, but warned that the new dual role occupied by Damian Green at the Cabinet Office must not lead to digital going on the backburner.
“The former Work and Pensions Secretary has considerable ministerial experience and his time at DWP will have made him aware of the importance of digital transformation in driving public sector efficiencies,” Morrison-Bell wrote.
“However, he also takes on the role as first secretary of state, a largely political role as the prime minister seeks a more consultative approach with her party.
“The new Cabinet Office minister no doubt has the credentials to drive the digital transformation agenda but other responsibilities must not side track him from this vital brief.”
Tech UK’s warning comes after the influential Institute for Government think tank urged the creation of a dedicated minister for digital government post in a bid to ensure sufficient political clout and focus on transformation plans.
“Big decisions, such as about which system to use for verifying citizens’ identity across government, have been ducked,” said the IfG’s programme director Daniel Thornton.
“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.”
Public sector digital and software provider Civica has also stressed the need for key digital reforms to go ahead despite the noise of the election.
"While the general election delivered a new set of challenges for UK government rather than the stability the prime minister was seeking, it is important that momentum for key policies and initiatives is not lost, especially at the local level," said Civica's Paul Bradbury.
He added: "While there are many government organisations who are leading the way here, such as NI Direct for example, we know that this move to online services and automation will not happen overnight. While Westminster’s focus is now on stability, and Brexit, a digital culture must be placed at the heart of government if we are to underpin our future competitiveness.”
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