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Mike Bracken

Partner in Public Digital, formerly the UK’s first chief data officer

Mike Bracken: By moving data out of the centre, the government is making it harder to deliver its own policies

To elicit government-wide institutional reforms in a digital age, one needs three levers – digital, data and technology – to be in one place aligned to the financial levers of government. It took a financial crisis and repeated delivery failures for the UK to harmonise these powers, and this triple-play model is now becoming the new normal globally. So it was curious in the extreme when, at the start of the Easter holidays, the Government slipped out the news that data powers would be moved to DCMS without any explanation.

Through Public Digital, I work with governments around the world, and see a consistent necessity to bring together digital transformation, data policy and technology reform into the centre of governments, in order to focus delivery around the needs of users rather than the preferences of departments and ministries. There are lots to choose from. Countries with large populations and complex administrations are doing the hard work to align these three powers close to the financial and political centre of the state: Macri in Argentina has a new platform which gives users a single view of their Government transactions; Modi in India brought in these powers to a joint cabinet committee; Peno Nieta in Mexico used this combination to digitise birth certificates, an issue which has held back economic growth and engagement with the state; Trudeau in Canada has brought these powers together into his finance ministry and created the Canadian Digital Service; and Obama in the USA responded to the initial HealthCare.gov failure by placing these powers in two new federal agencies, the USDS and 18f. Macron in France looks set to take this model to a new level with his new data and AI initiative.

Smaller nations have shown how having a central authority with these three powers can rapidly transform public services amd make their economies more competitive: Singapore, Estonia, Uruguay and even politically-troubled Peru show how smaller countries can make rapid progress. Together with the UK, this model is in place for a quarter of the world’s population.

All this happened, in part, because the UK built a model in the coalition government of how a government should organise itself and showed the multiplier benefit of this arrangement: £4.1bn in savings in one parliament; world class digital public services in motoring, tax, justice and beyond; and, for the first time in decades, an enthusiasm from technology and digital professionals to work in public services. It was described as “an unsung triumph of the last parliament” by David Cameron. There have been over 250 foreign government visits to the UK to see this model since its inception in 2011, yet it seems the government is separating these levers of reform, which have been copied around the world, without a clear benefit to users or a clear benefit to government.

This is not about any agency or department but about how government organises itself. Wind back to 2011. There was no central government technology function worthy of the name. Government produced thousands of shonky websites, most transactions were poorly digitised if at all, and the data model for government was chaotic. There were no standards. Departmentalism ruled, and the zero-sum game of Whitehall was in play: For my department to win, yours must lose. The poor users were made to navigate government in the vain hope it could speak with one voice. And the cost to the public purse was astronomical. As the cabinet secretary once opined: “It’s just so hard to get anything done in Whitehall.”

Civil servants are born knowing this, politicians learn the hard way. After leaving office, Tony Blair said he learned that bureaucracy is “great at managing things, but not great at changing things”. That’s because Whitehall was designed to be that way, to promote solioes and inertia, and reduce central controls so that politicians can’t alter the machinery of government quickly.

Over the next 5 years, the painstaking work needed to unpick decades of inertia gathered momentum. A big part of that meant creating new standards and central authorities to enforce them. Ever wondered why applying for a driving licence and a lasting power of attorney are similar, and it all looks like GOV.UK, a design language you only need to learn once? That’s due to the digital service standard which defines and upholds high quality services and veto ones which don’t make the grade. You may have seen improvements in how government plays back your data to you, and starts using the same data across services. This is due to the canonical registers and the data controls to insist personal data is only produced, maintained and stored once. And you may have noticed that the waterfall of IT disasters, from NHS IT to e-Borders, has been reduced. This is due to the IT Spend controls and technology code of practice which have initiated some good practice across a supply chain described as an oligopoly by parliament in 2011. This helped hand over £4bn of wasted spending back to Treasury. All of this reform was underpinned by a commitment to meeting the needs of users of government, rather than the needs of the government machine itself, as Francis Maude, then cabinet office minister, said in parliament.

These powers are multidisciplinary, and require teams with data, service design and technology expertise. Even with these powers aligned in the centre, it is sometimes difficult to stop the sovereign powers of departments, even with powerful ministerial intervention: Who will force the Department of Business to liberate physical address data from the Post Office, as Number 10 found impossible. Who now will make HMRC use the same definition of ‘a company’ as DWP, BEIS and Companies House and thus reduce red tape for every business in the country? And who will stop the Department of Health sharing medical data on migrants with the Home Office? One thing is for sure, this move will make it harder to deliver reforms across all of government.

In the UK system, the centre means Cabinet Office or Treasury. To take data policy out of the centre and move it without mandate or clear explanation to a weak departments with no track record of delivery or cross-Whitehall power – known as the Department of Fun – run by a Minister who was forced to change the data privacy settings on his own app doesn’t make sense. It is surely a mistake to make such a move for political expediency or, alternatively, to perpetuate departmental games in Whitehall. There are pressing needs to develop data policy, whether it be in GDPR, social media regulation or privacy, but those can all be done without removing a key central lever of control. These problems are unlikely to be fixed by throwing responsibility as far away from the centre as possible.

Whatever the reasons for this move, the net result was summed up by one of my ex-colleagues: “Government makes it harder to deliver government policy.” As every government now and in future will realise quickly, to deliver policy in a digital era they will need an alignment of these three powers to effect changes at the pace that users now expect. Future governments will expect to move at internet-era speed, and find yet more siloes and disconnected power plays block their path.

The Victorian era machinery of Government is ill-equipped for the internet era, let alone the post-Brexit era. As Nick Clegg reflected on his time in power: “I regularly found myself squeezed uncomfortably between the wish to react rapidly to reasonable public demands for action and the reality of cumbersome decision-making in government, stuck between the politics of a digital age and the analogue arrangements of Whitehall.”

Last weekend, the UK seems to have made government a little bit slower, more siloed, harder to reform and more complex. Without a clear statement of motivation, you have to ask: what is the user need?

Mike Bracken is a partner at Public Digital and formerly the UK’s chief data officer

Public Digital’s new book, ‘Digital Transformation at Scale: The Strategy is Delivery’ is published on April 18th, by London Publishing Partnership