THE BLOG

Theresa May's New Government Must Renew the Digital Service's Political Mandate

01/08/2016 08:27 | Updated 01 August 2016
Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

It is a classic Whitehall power grab carried out while the chaos caused by Brexit is still unfolding. While Cabinet members familiarise themselves with their new roles, the Government Digital Service (GDS) is under threat, with a Whitehall plan to undermine it already well advanced. Unless it's stopped, a decade of digital progress in central government could be undone. The Home Office has already quietly removed its most senior digital leader and similar positions in the Cabinet Office, DWP and HMRC are reportedly under threat. The mandarin machine is taking advantage of the summer hiatus to launch a minor coup, with the Sir Humphreys of Whitehall effectively trying to repatriate powers to their respective departments. The new cabinet office minister, Ben Gummer, must not allow them to succeed.

The Government Digital Service was set up by the Coalition Government immediately after the 2010 general election with a simple but radical objective; to use the groundbreaking tools and techniques of the internet era to redesign public services around the citizens who use them. Until then, their interests had too often been subservient to government departments that habitually think and act in isolation. As a former Minister for Digital Engagement I'm glad it's succeeded. According to the Treasury, it saved £4.1billion of public money in four years, and the digital approach it inspired helped transform Government services like the DVLA.

DVLA digitisation has allowed us to ditch pink paper copies of driving licences. The tax disk has gone and motorists can pay easily and quickly by direct debit. Behind the scenes, DVLA have hired and trained their own developers in South Wales, partnered with local universities and removed themselves from costly outsourced contracts. There are many other examples. GDS made it far easier to give power of attorney to a family member so ailing relatives can be well cared for.

The gov.uk website enables users to download all the relevant legal documents, saving them up to £1,000 in legal fees. The Digital Service has instituted a myriad of clever tricks that dramatically improve public services - like making the Minister responsible for a new initiative use it before it goes live. Yes, it sounds obvious but sometimes common sense is often in short supply in Whitehall.

The UK is now genuinely world-beating in this area. In 2014 the Wall Street Journal described GDS as "the gold-standard in the global world of digital government". The gains are huge. Public services improve and, just as importantly, a far smaller number of Whitehall IT projects end in expensive failure. The GDS commands huge respect in government and put a stop to a number of potentially disastrous IT initiatives - including the launch of Universal Credit. As a result, the Government new employs some of the UK's best digital and technology talent across Whitehall and beyond. They challenge the cosy status quo formed by a well-established cabal of mandarins, IT directors and large technology suppliers, and the country benefits as a result.

This citizen-centric digital movement has made tremendous progress. A new generation of civil servants has emerged, attracted by the prospect of applying digital techniques to make a difference to the lives of millions. I know because I follow many of them on Twitter. They believe that by being more open and transparent about the decisions they make and the reasons they make them, they'll make things better - and they are right. The GDS has flung open the heavy curtains of Whitehall and allowed sunlight to illuminate the workings of Government. By doing so, it has also shed new light on how the politics of the future will be conducted, at a party level as well as nationally.

I made digital reform a key part of my pitch for Labour's deputy leadership job because I believe it has the potential to transform politics. After thirty years as a party member, I'm done with slates, factions and bovine line taking from MPs. Labour will only flourish again when we remove decision-making from the party HQ and hand it to members. To do that, Labour needs to become a digital-first party. We need to build online resources that will allow members to work collaboratively so that they can organise and improve their communities. The era of taking instructions from London-based apparatchiks is over.

For the same to be true in Whitehall it requires Gummer, whose Cabinet Office department oversees GDS, to act. Only a strong Cabinet office Minister with the authority of the Prime Minster, can preserve its legacy. He must safeguard the digital reformers across government and protect Whitehall's digital revolution from a counter-insurgency led by powerful private secretaries. If he fails to do so, a major opportunity will have been missed. Despite the success of the Digital Service, our country's digital journey is still at an early stage. We should aim to build a new digital civic infrastructure on which a radically equitable, empathetic and efficient state can be built. But to do that, we need talented technologists who can understand the implications of setting Google's Deepmind algorithms loose on NHS health data, or unpick the DWP's ill-advised experiment to place the benefits system on the blockchain. It planned to use the cryptographic payments system pioneered by digital currencies like Bitcoin to restrict the items claimants could spent their money on - so no cigarettes or alcohol, for example, only food and other essentials.

Thankfully, there is a simple way to prevent the good work from being undone. Theresa May's new Government must renew the Digital Service's political mandate for this Parliament and beyond. If it does so, I guarantee that Labour will continue to support its work. Government services shaped by the needs of citizens should never be at the mercy of the whims of Whitehall mandarins.

Tom Watson is deputy leader of the Labour Party and Shadow Minster for the Cabinet Office. He served as the UK's first Minister for Digital Engagement from 2008 to 2009

Comments

CONVERSATIONS