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Give chief information digital officer teeth, thinktank recommends


Michael Cross Correspondent

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An influential thinktank has proposed a powerful role for the Government’s new chief digital information officer in the expected shake-up of Whitehall expected this year. 

A paper on civil service reform published by Policy Exchange also gives a strong vote of confidence to the Government Digital Service, suggesting it be given powers to set a uniform digital strategy across government – and be allowed to compete with private sector suppliers for public sector contracts. 

In September the Cabinet Office announced it was appointing a chief digital information officer (CDIO) at permanent secretary level. Final interviews were to be held in November but the process was put on hold during the general election campaign. 

Proposing a new “digital leadership structure”, Policy Exchange says: “For the new CDIO to be effective and accountable, they should have heads of digital and technology in each department who report to the CDIO, and not just their department’s permanent secretary. They should also have a team embedded in the Treasury to help the next chancellor to get real information and expertise.”  

Additionally, the Government should appoint a chief data officer – a plan that was confirmed in October – to oversee data flows, use and ethics across government, a chief product officer to oversee the adoption of common platforms and the personalisation of government services and a chief transformation officer to focus entirely on legacy IT.

Stronger Civil Service

The recommendations appear in Whitehall Reimagined: A strengthened Civil Service for a post-Brexit Britain. The main thrust of the report is for a stronger core Civil Service, centred on an enlarged prime minister’s office, and for the senior Civil Service to be given more freedom to recruit flexibly.

It notes that “Brexit will not only transform our relationship with the EU, but will require Whitehall to regain competency in areas ranging from agricultural policy to chemicals regulation. Skills must be regained, agencies empowered and modes of operation implemented seamlessly, efficiently and in a way which restores full democratic control.”

Calling for better use of digital technologies, it comments: “Politicians of all parties should be alarmed by the fact that the UK is slowly dropping down international e-government rankings, not least because these studies should, in theory, favour the UK by taking into account elements outside e-government such as the wider business and innovation environment.”

Echoing numerous analyses over the past three decades, the report notes that: “Whitehall’s departmental structure makes it intrinsically difficult to pursue a coordinated approach to digital, data and IT. Departments often spend millions developing their own systems and databases, tailored specifically to their needs, and their needs alone. Moreover, the government spends significant funds on external consulting firms for digital and data projects. These could arguably be done more effectively and less expensively by in-house professionals.”

Among specific proposals, Policy Exchange says that the GDS, under the leadership of the CDIO, “should be given the unequivocal authority to lead digital policy and delivery so that it can break down department silos and establish a uniform digital strategy across government.”

This would include implementing a set of cross-government data standards and common rules for the storage, management and collection of data by January 2021. The report adds that GDS should also be allowed to bid for digital contracts alongside consultancy firms. 

Writing in the foreword, Dame Patricia Hodgson (pictured), former chair of Ofcom, says that “Policy development and delivery can and must be improved by state-of-the-art use of data and intelligent computer systems. The prize includes data sharing across departments for better informed policy making and the design of improved public services delivered to individuals.

“We can surely provide more customised help with job searches, benefit issues or health care. But we need to balance the benefits of this technology with robust controls to ensure personal privacy and protect individuals from over-mighty government.”

Whether the report gains any traction with Downing Street remains to be seen. But Policy Exchange’s enthusiasm for several items known to be on the prime minister’s agenda, such as cutting the number of Whitehall departments, suggests it could be pushing at an open door. 

Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0

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