‘Whitehall’s digital strategy could be more workaday than grand plan’

Written by David Walker on 27 January 2017 in Opinion

In a post-Brexit world, says David Walker, caution may be the best digital strategy civil servants can hope for.

Departments will carry on and do their own thing while the strategy remains unpublished, says David Walker - Photo credit: David Walker

Initially, the government said that the document – which is supposed to set the strategy for the foreseeable future – would be published before the end of last year. Then, it was “due to be published in January” – and now one source has suggested Theresa May’s team thinks it needs “a few weeks’ more work”.

No, it’s not the digital strategy. It’s the long-promised housing white paper.

Digital isn’t the only policy area experiencing prevarication and delay – and the reasons may be similar.

Whitehall, says the latest Institute for Government Monitor, is struggling to cope with Brexit, not just in terms of civil service numbers but also winning the attention of ministers, especially Number 10.

There is only one game in town for this government. Everything else, even such prime ministerial favourites as selective secondary schools and helping folk who are ‘just about managing’ tumble down the queue for a slot on the grid and a modicum of prime ministerial attention.

"There is only one game in town for this government"

And where policy commitments poke through – like Greg Clark’s industrial strategy – they turn out to be a shopping list of the desirable; they are loose, baggy and somewhat lacking in financial heft and timetabling.

Digital’s problems in pushing for its moment in the sun are well rehearsed. It’s hydra-headed, requiring the buy-in of multiple departments – and yet Whitehall’s key department, the Treasury, has never been especially interested.

Its proponents in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Cabinet Office are not natural allies; the Tiggerish Matt Hancock is not in the Cabinet and shares the digital brief with Ben Gummer, who so far has kept a fairly low profile.

There’s a feeling in some quarters that digital had its chance with the Digital Economy Bill – led by DCMS – but it tried to hit too many targets and missed. (And now that BT is facing financial problems, DCMS policy on broadband and connectivity may also need major revision.)

Digital suffers, too, from having a small number of enthusiasts rather than an army of advocates. Paul Maltby, the ex-Government Digital Service star, has taken to print to extol the creation of Whitehall’s “digital community”; but digital in central government is also a ghetto and struggles for mainstream recognition.

Permanent secretaries talk the talk about skills and modernisation, but mostly don’t exhibit what you might call digital sensibility.

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The recent launch of a book on the role of cabinet secretary saw all surviving past occupants get together and reflect on the job.

It was not surprising, given their age, that digital did not figure much in their recollections. But more telling was their insistence that the job is about crisis management, keeping ministers happy in the here and now, and very little to do with strategy or the nuts and bolts of service delivery.

The word ‘transformation’ is not one ever to have passed their lips.

Making a public presentation, Whitehall’s chief people officer Rupert McNeill didn’t ignore digital skills but equally they weren’t exactly top of his list of the attributes that tomorrow’s civil servants are going to need.

Jeremy Heywood, the incumbent permanent secretary does talk enthusiastically about the digital future -- but he, too, is basically the impresario of a circus, where the elephants are trumpeting and the clowns running riot.

He does not have the time, energy or inclination for pushing digital. He would say it’s a question of the division of labour: transformation is for John Manzoni and he talks the talk.

"Departments will  get on and do their own thing, making their own mistakes"

But while the data revolutionary isn’t yet Jean Valjean, the would-be insurgents at his back have been getting on with it.

During the waiting period, while the digital strategy has failed to appear, government has been doing a lot of data policy. This reflects post-Brexit reality.

As long as they are not claiming legislative time or investment of political capital by Number 10, departments can pretty much get on with it – if their ministers and permanent secretaries have the inclination or want to clear the cupboards.

That may be the reason why recently, and after a gap of 15 months or so, there appeared a response to Alex Allan’s review of digital records.

Better Information for Better Government might have been called ‘better data for better government’, because what are ‘digital information assets’ if not data? And its recommendations would make a lot more sense – and carry a lot more weight – in the departments to which they are directed if they were incorporated in an overarching digital strategy.

For all the Mazoni rhetoric about changing the fabric of government, his and Kevin Cunnington’s vision for GDS is that grand plans and master strategies must not get in the way of empirical, day by day, practical engagement between the expert centre and departments. (And, as ever, the NHS does its own thing, ‘data lakes’ and all.)

And departments will – as HMRC shows time and again – get on and do their own thing, making their own mistakes.

But in the margins and on the quiet, GDS, along with the Crown Commercial Service, can make small-scale contributions.

The words ‘bespoke’ and ‘clusters’ frequently crop up. They might not inspire civil servants to mount the barricades but caution, and acknowledgement that Whitehall is still full of digital laggards, may be a more realistic ‘strategy’ in these post Brexit days. 

About the author

David Walker is a former managing director of public reporting at the Audit Commission and co-author with Polly Toynbee of Cameron’s Coup.


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