What does digital mean for a Labour government?

Labour’s review of digital government succeeded on its own terms. Despite scepticism when it was launched, the review successfully engaged with a large number of people. It set out a clear commitment to increasing digital inclusion. It points the way for the continuation of the Government Digital Service under a Labour government. It contains some really strong thinking around the empowerment of local communities. And in the form of Jon Cruddas’ supportive speech, it was even inspirational.

However, its constrained remit means that the Labour Party has three, inter-related holes in its approach digital government.

1. What next for GDS?

The review recommends that GDS completes its task of building the 25 exemplars. That will reduce the cost per transaction of the lionshare of government transactional services. What then? Does GDS just work methodically down the list of transactions until all those over 100,000 p.a. have been redesigned? Or does it turn to other important activities of government — a digital by default spending review, digitising health or the police — or even just ministerial correspondence?

Labour was quiet on this point. A clear mandate for ‘business as usual’ but little future direction. GDS contains some of the brightest, most able civil servants — many of whom are experts in their field. That won’t last forever. But whilst it does, they need to be given every opportunity to succeed.

2. What future for transforming government?

GDS has been a fascinating model for transforming government. Outsiders, typically hired as civil servants. Based off-site, with licence to do there own thing. Some very big carrots (has any other part of government generated as much good PR in the last 5 years?) and the sticks of transparency and spending controls. It’s attracted experts from civil society, the private and public sector. GDS has achieved more than any number of senior civil servant restructures.

However, it’s not clear that GDS scales. Departments that don’t have an exemplar are struggling to make real headway with service transformation beyond migrating content to gov.uk. Those working in the major transactional services but outside exemplars have often been little changed by the head-down, single-mission approach of the exemplars — (DH and FCO excepted). For example, DECC is still rolling out expensive policies for renewable energy that no-one wants.

Each change of government has introduced a new cohort of ministers to the secret that Whitehall can achieve little change. The next change of government will be little different. Labour needs to learn all it can about what has and hasn’t worked about GDS, to understand how it can introduced innovations and enhancements to the civil service. If not this review, then when?

And what when GDS succeeds? Lots of civil servants in administrative roles — many in safe Labour seats — without a job. Will a digital skills programme for civil servants be sufficient to manage the next wave of post-industrialisation in Newcastle, Sheffield, Coventry and beyond?

3. What does digital mean for government?

Digital will challenge government in a number of ways. The consequences of the exemplars have been little debated. But, for example, handing every citizen their own online tax account ought to have a significant impact of people’s awareness of their total payroll tax. Great digital services will change the citizen’s relationship with government. What’s a Labour vision for this more personalised relationship?

More prosaically, good digital needs good ministers. Not grand plans or ‘eye-catching initiatives’ announced to great fanfare but with minimal consideration. And that’s a hard sell internally. Tagging ‘digital minister’ to each Secretary of State’s long list of responsibilities will be insufficient. There’s no evidence Labour has grasped this. Cruddas’ strong speech is a prime example. It confirms Labour’s policies for regional banks to increase business lending outside London. Perhaps that’ll work. Or perhaps some will be a disaster. But it’s a, expensive solution looking for a problem. Cheaper alternatives to explore alternative solutions abound. Would transparency do the trick? Labour could have created a map where citizens could see how much each bank leant to businesses in their region. What about a local authority-led regional crowd-funding campaign? None would have the scale or impact of a regional bank. But both would help better understand the nature of the problem and deliver cheaper, quicker pilots to start tackling it.T

None of this should detract from an excellent piece of work, delivered in an open and engaging way, and with some strong recommendations. But digital transformation is hard because it goes beyond traditional siloes, requiring senior leadership buy-in if it is to succeed. That couldn’t be achieved only by a review from a junior shadow cabinet office minister. But the absence of vision is a concern for any digital Labour sympathiser.

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