Public Services > Central Government

Why shelve digital government? It was only a General Election!

Published 22 June 2017

The hung Parliament might actually turn out to be the best possible outcome for advancing digital government, argues Frank Joshi

 

The ability to pivot on a sixpence is a highly sought after skill in the commercial sector. Successful British entrepreneurs and properly agile businesses do it all the time. So why can’t we see the same in the public sector and, specifically, in government computing?

What this Parliament offers us, which the previous one could not, is the chance of seeing some exemplary cross-party collaborative work rather than the usual ‘propose-and-resist’ tensions.

And this need for collaboration applies equally to putting into practice some or all of the ‘Government Transformation Strategy’. Surely empowering the citizen is something that all parties see merit in, don’t they?

And as for making government services more streamlined? Ditto. Absolutely. Hear, hear, dear boy.

I think we’ve rarely been in a better place for real progress on digital government (see ‘Nokes joins Cabinet Office ministerial team’ , June 14).

And what gives me the right to be so upbeat about this?  Simple. I think the consensus that’s now needed to make any progress on any issue necessarily has to improve for anything at all to get done, which in my experience only ever delivers a better result than unilateral ‘Lone Ranger’ efforts ever do.  Call me what you like but team work wins every time in my book.

In one sense, I think GlobalData analysts Rob Anderson and Jessica Figueras are right to express caution on the reprioritisation of the digital agenda ( ‘Digital by Delay’ , June 12) but consider this: continuity has some attractive advantages right now when too many other topics have been thrown in the air and not yet landed.

Staying agile

We shouldn’t be overly bogged down with internal shenanigans – games of departmental musical chairs which don’t impress the public (see ‘Cabinet Office needs new leadership as May forms minority government’ , June 9).

The public want to see things happening, and happening at pace on a lot of fronts and that includes better and easier access to government services online.

Asked whether the Government Digital Service should reside as part of Cabinet Office or possibly - by virtue of the remit owned by Matt Hancock on digital - tuck in under Department for Culture, Media and Sport, there are those who would say it’s largely a matter of housekeeping; crucially GDS is productive and it needs to stay that way.

I think it would be entirely the wrong moment to shelve the progress made on digital. And it would be fool-hardy, reckless and a waste of taxpayers’ money to abandon or even put on ice initiatives such as GOV.UK Verify.

Instead I think what we need to do is this:

Symbiotic

Forget the Origin of Species (with my apologies to Darwin) and its perpetual fight for survival of the fittest. Let’s enthusiastically embrace a new symbiotic relationship between public sector and private sector and heavily promote the use of government-assured digital identity – yes, Verify – in all areas of the private sector.

Now, GOV.UK Verify has the opportunity to embark on a new journey. Cabinet Office has had the vision and foresight to decide on a sandbox environment that the private sector can come and trial government-assured digital identity, attributes and – here’s that word again - collaboration.

Parallax

Forget any myopic degeneration of past strategies; that was then and now is now. Let’s acknowledge that parallax exists but the two different lines of sight that public sector and private sector have had on digital identity, privacy and citizen consent doesn’t always mean it can’t be different forwards from here.

Those of us who live the real world all know that GOV.UK Verify has had its critics inside and outside government computing circles, and apparently still has. But as I’ve explained before we have a start and its preferable to work on something rather than nothing.

The 17-hand Clap

Forget the ‘it-can’t-be-done-ers’ and the inertia, distrust, stand-off that characterises their way of working. Let’s go for a 17-hand clap with all the Identity Providers and Service Providers, the Relying Parties and the hub technology providers all keeping in time with one another. It can be done if we put our minds to it.

The big IT services firms cannot do this stuff unaided. Even though they are duty bound to engage with SMEs to deliver 25 per cent of any public sector contract they win, they’ll tell you that the pace they work at is frequently challenged when compared with the rapid response that’s typical of many SMEs.

Oh, sure, global sourcing firms have the reach, scale and seemingly limitless manpower that government thinks its contracts require. But they don’t have that ‘turn on a sixpence’ culture or mentality I talked about at the start of this article. So I would want to include them in the 17-hand clap because it cannot be done without them too (surprised I said that, eh?).

The last word goes to Brexit .

Look. We can’t stop breathing just because of Brexit. Government transformation delivered by digital change needs to be run in parallel, not in series, to Brexit. Britain’s success hinges on mastery of all aspects of the digital economy. I have to agree with Julian David at techUK on the need to tackle what he calls “rapid global digitisation”.

Certainly, work on digital government shouldn’t stop because everyone is preoccupied with Brexit; if anything we should accelerate it. Cyber resilience and especially Digital Identity is indivisible from growing the digital economy.

Frank Joshi is director of Mvine Ltd an established UK SME specialising in distributed digital identity technologies








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