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Improving the management of digital government

Lucy Campbell argues good digital government is about standards, prioritisation and accountability, as much as technology.

When one in five NHS trusts were infected by the WannaCry ransomware on 12 May, it was a sobering reminder that the internet has brought risks as well as opportunities to government. The cyber-attack, which saw surgeries cancelled and people turned away from hospitals, exposed the weaknesses in our public sector systems beyond just the technology we use. This is the subject of the Institute for Government’s new report, Improving the management of digital government.

At our launch event, we heard that while digital government has made some progress, many services still operate in isolation and the digital development of the wider public sector has been patchy.

Digital government event

Standards are at the heart of digital government

The internet is enabled by standards for how computers communicate with each other and digital government also relies on standards. The Government Digital Service (GDS) has been successful in promulgating its service standards. There have also been improvements in meeting user needs, including through the consolidation of government websites into GOV.UK.

However, more can be done to clarify and tier these standards, in addition to spreading them beyond Whitehall. Our recommendations include GDS creating an Application Programming Interface (API) store, and better engagement with the market through the Digital Marketplace.

New ways of organising government

Data exchange in government is primitive (with spreadsheets attached to emails), or bespoke and expensive. Duplication is widespread and department structures have become barriers to building digital services that meets user needs. There is still more government can learn from the private sector, which benefits from economies of scale in supply and demand (for example, in 2015 WhatsApp supported 900 million users with just 50 engineers).

Panellist Bryan Glick, Editor of Computer Weekly, says that the most digitally transformative companies are those which realise digital is “not about technology, but business model change”, where “people at the top give people autonomy to innovate”.

Prioritisation and implementation plans are lacking

In February, the much-awaited Government Transformation Strategy was published. Although full of ambition, it lacks firm commitments, failing to detail the required resources (including funding) and measurable objectives.

Panellist Ciaran Martin, CEO of the National Cyber Security Centre, warns of the consequences of "strategic underachievement", adding that the Government should "ask [it]self the hard strategy questions first and then organise [it]self around it”.

The Government Transformation Strategy also lacks prioritisation, at a time when the National Audit Office is already reporting that GDS is "trying to cover too broad a remit". However, Brexit has created a burning platform and the Government needs to focus on specific services to meet the challenge of leaving the EU. Panellist Janet Hughes, Digital Leadership Director at Doteveryone, says that the civil service should see Brexit as “an opportunity to think and work in different ways”.

Digital government needs leadership and lines of accountability

So who should be responsible for managing digital government? The IfG has previously argued that everyone in government must be involved in making a success of digital. At our event, Janet Hughes argues that digital should not be a ‘niche’ topic in the same way that everyone uses electricity.

However, Ciaran Martin observes that it is very easy for ‘everyone’ to become ‘no-one’. That is why the final recommendation in our report is that the Prime Minister responds to the current absence of visible political leadership and creates a Minister for Digital Government.

A minister could help taken the big decisions facing digital government and take government into the digital age.

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