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Andrew Bennett

Policy analyst, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

Parliament’s digital government report just isn’t ambitious enough

This week, Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee published its report on digital government, highlighting how a movement once led by the UK has since lost momentum. But it should have gone further, for real progress lies somewhere more radical: transforming the entire operating model of government.

The starting point for this transformation must be learning from the most effective organisations in all spheres of life to reassess how to govern, deliver and organise in the public sector. Organisations with the internet in their DNA understand one crucial thing better than those who came before them: it unlocks a world of opportunity and huge value for the entities that help people navigate it.

Indeed, the best innovation flowing from companies born for the internet age goes beyond technology itself, encompassing the new cultures, processes and operating models required to realise its potential. Radical overhaul of the state apparatus must begin here.

In this light, the report’s focus areas – digital identity, digital leadership, data sharing and legacy IT – are certainly part of the solution, but only part. And even here, the committee’s recommendations could have gone further.

Certainly, digital identity must form a central part of a truly internet-era government, one that underwrites the platforms and digital infrastructure required for both public and private innovation to flourish in the modern world. But instead of focusing on single unique identifiers, this was the opportunity to articulate a fully secure, private and decentralised model of digital identity, as a foundation for progress across all sectors.

Similarly, the report is right to promote improved digital leadership to get a grip on these issues. But while a new cyber security minister, an enhanced role for the Office for AI and ministerial digital champions could embed the importance of digital across Whitehall, these steps could equally further complicate an already confused digital governance landscape. Leaving the door open to the continued entanglement of GDS and DCMS doesn’t help either, with the latter having struggled to take over the former’s duties in areas like digital identity and data policy in recent years.

A better way forward would be to build a new central Digital, Data and Technology function that incorporates GDS and its product functions, takes over the D in DCMS, and brings together departments’ fragmented data functions. This dedicated, cabinet-level leadership for both technology policy and provision should be a priority for an area so important to our economy, society and government.

Thirdly, we cannot rely on solitary initiatives like the GovTech Catalyst Fund, promising as it may be, to promote innovation in government. Instead, we must encourage experimentation and iteration across the entire public sector. On procurement, all central government, non-commodity contracts should first run a pre-procurement innovation process unless waived by the relevant minister; research and development investment should be organised around mission-oriented portfolios; a national public-value dashboard should be provided to teams across all layers of government; and business cases must be incremental, forcing experimentation to unlock further funding.

Finally, while the Committee’s efforts to promote improved data sharing are welcome, we should recognise that silos in government go far beyond data. Ossified bureaucracies replete with obstructive interdependencies that reduce teams’ autonomy require a major reset. This means shifting away from departmental silos and towards dynamic portfolios of cross-functional, non-departmental teams. Ministers shouldn’t be heads of rigid hierarchies with briefs set in stone, but rather managers of thematic portfolios of teams, loosely joined around a strategic area that can flex as required.

This new report is an important and thorough contribution to the growing calls for radical change, but to meet these demands our response must be equally ambitious. Today, neither the left nor the right have a substantive vision for how government should be remade in the face of the technological revolution, and this failure of leadership comes at a cost. Too often, citizens experience public services that feel like they belong in the past and, at a time of rising frustration at government, delaying the necessary change will just make things worse: pressure on public services and people’s expectations of what governments ought to deliver will both only increase.

Making these changes will not be easy; the business of government must carry on too and so strong, expert and adaptive leadership will be essential. Yet incremental fixes will only get us so far, with the gap between what governments are and what they ought to be continuing to grow until it becomes unmanageable. As the world becomes more complex – with decentralising technology making economies more interconnected and enabling ever-faster social change – purposeful and experimental governance, enabling digital infrastructure and responsive state institutions should be the minimum standards for progressive government.

Andrew Bennett is a policy analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and author of the recent report Transforming Government for the 21st century. You can follow him on Twitter @andrewjb_.