Cabinet reshuffle: What does it mean for digital government?

Written by Sam Trendall on 22 September 2021 in Features
Features

Julia Lopez, the minister responsible for GDS and CDDO, has moved departments – but the digital divisions may now receive more attention from the top of the Cabinet Office

Steve Barclay, the new Cabinet Office minister, is understood to have a keen interest in digital government    Credit: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

Few terms are used as frequently in the public sector technology sphere as ‘transformation’.

Even in this world, last week’s cabinet reshuffle was pretty transformative: every single minister with some responsibility for government’s use of digital and data and related policy areas was either replaced, moved on, or simply removed.

Perhaps most notably Julia Lopez – the Cabinet Office minister with responsibility for the Government Digital Service, Central Digital and Data Office, and government’s digital, data and technology function – was moved to a minister of state post at the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Full details of the responsibilities of her new position have not yet been announced, but her portfolio is understood to be focused on digital and data. The Hornchurch and Upminster MP has already represented her new department in parliament, taking part this week in a Westminster Hall debate about the government’s Project Gigabit programme to deliver fast broadband connections to hard-to-reach premises.

The digital government ministerial brief she leaves behind has become something of a hot potato in recent years, with Lopez becoming the tenth person in little more than half a decade to hold responsibility for GDS and the wider Whitehall tech and transformation agenda. 

The digital agency was established under the watch of then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. His immediate successors, Matt Hancock and Ben Gummer, also directly oversaw the work of GDS. But, shortly after the 2017 general election – during Damian Green’s time in charge of the department – oversight of GDS was moved to the portfolio of a junior minister.

Caroline Nokes initially took on the brief, which has since been managed by Oliver Dowden, Simon Hart, Jeremy Quin, Lord Agnew and, latterly, Lopez.

A like-for-like replacement for her has not been announced, and PublicTechnology understands that the latest ministerial rejig could see responsibility for digital government move back to the top of the department.

The reshuffle saw chief secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay appointed as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster and minister for the Cabinet Office, replacing Michael Gove.

Although no formal announcement has been made, it is understood that Barclay has a keen interest in digital government and is likely to take direct responsibility for GDS, CDDO and the wider brief.

His 19 months at HM Treasury – during which he worked with GDS on the creation of a tool to provide data to inform government investment decisions – offers evidence that the new Cabinet Office chief is supportive of digital transformation. 

In July 2020, in the first speech he delivered in his previous role, Barclay spoke of his hope that the planned government spending review – which was ultimately delayed by a year because of the pandemic – was used as an opportunity to deliver “fundamental change” in Whitehall’s digital and data infrastructure.

“A new public infrastructure is emerging to govern how we collect, share and exploit the vast data sets which are generated as a by-product of 21st century life,” he said. “But building this will involve sorting out the data architecture as well as the data sets. 

“Remember, the average tenure of a secretary of state is less than two years, and so it’s no surprise that issues such as legacy IT are often deprioritised in favour of the new and exciting. This is despite the fact that currently around half of central government IT spend is on servicing legacy IT. Such an approach is not only expensive. It also poses cybersecurity risk, and prevents agile ways of working and cross departmental interaction. It also obstructs the use of new innovative IT solutions and the sharing of data more openly. That is why a key focus of the spending review will be addressing legacy IT and investing in the data infrastructure we need to become a truly digital government.”

DCMS duties
As if to illustrate Barclay’s point, the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport Oliver Dowden was moved on during the reshuffle, after less than two years in post. 

He returns to the Cabinet Office, and remains in the cabinet as a minister without portfolio, as well as taking on the role of Conservative party chairman.

He is replaced at DCMS by Nadine Dorries.

The MP for Mid Bedfordshire will now hold ultimate ministerial responsibility for the UK’s data protection regime and online harms strategies. In this context, some industry onlookers have expressed concern that Dorries once revealed that she routinely shared her parliamentary log-ins with all her staff, including interns and short-term workers. 

The 2017 revelation prompted a warning from the Information Commissioner’s Office, which tweeted: “We’re aware of reports that MPs share logins and passwords and are making enquiries of the relevant parliamentary authorities. We would remind MPs and others of their obligations under the Data Protection Act to keep personal data secure.”

Despite widespread criticism, Dorries defended her actions at the time. She now finds herself in charge of the department that sponsors the ICO.

Her ministerial team will not include Matt Warman and John Whittingdale, who have been removed from their respective posts as ministers for digital infrastructure and media and data.

Alongside Lopez and Dorries, the DCMS ministerial line-up is completed by Nigel Huddleston, who remains in place as sport and tourism minister, and Chris Philp, whose portfolio is yet to be confirmed.

The incoming digital secretary used her first speech in post, delivered at the opening of London Tech Week, to express her ambition that UK should foster more large homegrown technology firms.

“We’ve proven year after year that this is the country to start a trailblazing tech business. But, actually, that’s not good enough. I want all of those businesses to stay in the UK, to grow in the UK, and to become global brands, based right here in the UK. We’ve cracked start-ups. Now it’s time to go big, and to begin paving the way for a new generation of British tech titans.”

To support this, government needs to listen to the ideas and needs of tech firms – one of which is a sturdy and supportive regulatory environment.

“I want to hear the things you think we could do to drive UK tech up to even greater heights; I already know, for example, that one of the things you most need is stable regulation,” Dorries said. “That’s why this government has made it a priority to pull everything we’re doing on tech into one coherent strategy. We published the Plan for Digital Regulation in July, and that plan sets out our overall vision for tech in the years to come. Innovation is at the heart of that plan, and I want to work with you to set the right rules for the next era of tech.”

 

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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