The digital fight needs political might

Written by Sam Trendall on 18 June 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

The case for transformation could do with more high-profile Westminster backers, according to PublicTechnology editor Sam Trendall

Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

As I write, Matt Hancock has just withdrawn from the Tory leadership contest – thereby eliminating the possibility that the country’s next prime minister will be the first to have launched their own smartphone app.

This is a sad day for the electorate, to be sure.

But for all that Hancock – with his puppyish tech-evangelist shtick – is often cast as a figure of fun, he is one of the few national politicians who strongly and consistently advocates for the adoption of technology. And a lack of political backing is often the biggest barrier to the progress of government digital and data initiatives.

There is a common perception that, since its inception in 2011, one of the major difficulties faced by the Government Digital Service has been driving change and reform in departments that are often fiercely protective of their sovereignty. Another widely held view is that GDS’s ability to disrupt has waned over time, as its prior pugnacity has given way to a more pacific approach.

Such broad generalisations may be a touch facile, but they each contain at least a grain of truth. 

During my time in this job, I have asked a number of current and former civil servants about the criteria that define the extent to which GDS – and the wider Cabinet Office – is able to bend to its will departments that might be resistant to centrally driven initiatives. 

The same, succinct answer has invariably come back each time.

“Ministers.”

In any difference of opinion between the centre of government and one of its departments, the minister with the greater clout will always win the argument, I have repeatedly been told. 

For the entirety of the coalition government’s five-year administration – which saw the creation of GDS and the formation of the Crown Commercial Service – Francis Maude served as Cabinet Office minister.

Maude was first elected to parliament in 1983. While the Conservatives were in power he held ministerial posts in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Treasury. Later, while in opposition, he occupied a number of front-bench positions – including shadow chancellor and party chairman – and, in the lead-up to the 2010 election, was reportedly picked by David Cameron to lead a team dedicated to preparing the Conservatives to take power.

By the time they did so, Maude had accumulated significant political capital. During the closing act of a three-decade career, he seemingly chose to spend it on Whitehall reforms that appeared to represent something of a passion project. 

The former Horsham MP had both the will and, crucially, the ministerial muscle to help drive through and ensure the success of initiatives like the disaggregation of monolithic contracts, the creation of GOV.UK, and the introduction of G-Cloud and the Digital Marketplace.

Since Maude exited the House of Commons following the 2015 election, a succession of people have held ministerial responsibility for GDS and CCS. Until the current incumbent Oliver Dowden – who, at 18 months and counting, has been in post significant longer than any of his immediate predecessors – all have been passing through the Cabinet Office on their way up, down, or sideways. 

Some – including Dowden and Hancock, who was Cabinet Office minister straight after Maude – have seemed to embrace the cause of digital transformation. Others less so.

But none can match Maude’s political clout, accumulated over many years as a senior member of his party’s parliamentary wing. What is more, while Cameron counted his Cabinet Office minister as a close ally, Theresa May never seemed to have any real interest in technology or the government agencies dedicated to its furtherance. 

In the race to succeed her, some may have found it difficult to take Matt Hancock – both the man and the app – all that seriously.

Those dedicated to the digital transformation of government may worry that the ultimate winner of that race, and the ministers with whom they surround themselves, will fail to take them seriously.

 

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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