Next week is the Queen’s speech will start to lay out what the legislative agenda for the new government looks like. With so much attention being paid in the press to the potential political pitfalls facing the changes in human rights legislation, less momentous changes are left to us to examine.
For me, the most interesting changes that will come in the next few years are how public bodies start to use technology as a transformative rather than supportive function. Much ink has been spilled on how local government and the NHS could use technology to try and mitigate some of the cuts in frontline services that are likely to be brought about by reductions in budgets, but I want to argue a slightly different point.
This next five years is the chance for the parts of the public sector outside Westminster to lead the rest of the country. It is a chance to show off ingenuity, local focus on users and the care that people in local government have for their communities.
I was talking to someone in a Westminster organisation not covered by GDS. They asked what I (honestly) thought about their efforts to digitise. I said that what they have so far is hack projects, and what they need is service design. We see this all over Europe. In Berlin we see projects that come out of Code for Berlin where the city data is adequate, the presentation excellent, the enthusiasm of the volunteers second to none, but the call to action is to go to an office in the Bürgeramt. It’s no use putting a shiny internet gloss on a process that doesn’t work for people. The internet doesn’t increase citizens’ tolerance for bad ideas and systems.
As Dominic Campbell has ably pointed out, the costs of investment in digital are classed as capital spending. It isn’t a cost like printing a leaflet, it is a cost like building an office. This is the way that investment in digital needs to be thought about, not as a shiny new logo, a whopping fee for maintenance and all the usability and joy of a site made mainly of PDFs.
The Conservative manifesto and prior budgets have hinted at the Government as a Platform approach being the proposed way forward for breaking the deadlock on Local Government digital, but that means a lot more than spinning up an instance of the GDS codebase; it is going to mean changing the way services are delivered. This Queen’s speech and the budget following it will likely put the money and political impetus to do things in the hands of councils and the health service.
It is a challenge to all of us, but one that we avoid at our peril.