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Government digital effort lacks ministerial weight



Opinion: Pushing through the digital government services agenda needs a Cabinet Office minister with serious clout, not a newcomer to the scene

Oliver who? Many in the sector are likely to have asked the question after the appointment of Oliver Dowden as the new minister in the Cabinet Office with oversight of the Government Digital Service (GDS).

No disrespect intended, but he’s a relative newcomer to the scene, first elected to Parliament in 2015, and the publicly available information suggests he has little prior interest in digital matter of any sort.

It’s not a big surprise, as most ministerial appointments involve responsibility for issues in which they have little or no experience, but it will matter to the future of the Government’s digital policy.

Central government is still working in a digital landscape heavily influenced by GDS in the five years it reported to Sir Francis Maude. Departmental and agency websites have been brought under the GOV.UK banner, the Digital Marketplace has been established as a major channel for procurement, there has been a move away from the reliance on big systems integrator contracts, and despite the frustrations, the Verify, Notify and Pay platforms have footholds in service.

Progress has been sporadic, but this has been against the departmental resistance and cultural obstacles that are still common in Whitehall, and plenty of observers wouldn’t have expected this much of GDS when it was set up in 2011.

Whitehall tussles

It made its mark largely because it had Maude, the senior minister in the Cabinet Office and a heavyweight in the Conservative Party, fully engaged and ready to back GDS chief Mike Bracken in inter-departmental tussles. This created a momentum maintained by Maude’s successor Matt Hancock, who has since proved at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that he has a sound understanding of the issues.

But his successors, Ben Gummer then Caroline Nokes, showed few signs of grasping the agenda to the same extent. Their occasional contributions were reminiscent of those from a stream of junior Cabinet Office ministers under the Labour Government: shake a few hands, pose for some photos, sign off a quote about the great efforts being made, then disappear into another ministerial post or the party backbenches.

This was a big part in GDS making more impact than its predecessors, and raises fears of it losing momentum now. It is making good progress with some programmes – the Gov Wifi service and building of government registers spring to mind – but it took some flak from the National Audit Office last year and has taken a lower profile. More widely, there are reports of continued Whitehall opposition to its campaign for a more common approach towards digital in central government.

This is going to involve occasional head butting with other departments, and it needs a strong minister behind it to have a chance. At the least, the senior minister in the Cabinet Office has to be involved, but there was no real sign of this in Damian Green’s time, and nothing to suggest the recently appointed David Lidington can throw much weight behind it.

If the Government is serious about a strong, centralised strategy for digital services it has to acknowledge that plenty of people in Whitehall will not want to go along, and ensure the effort is led by a minister with the influence and sense of purpose to back his or her officials. Another low level, short term appointment is not going to provide any fresh momentum.

Picture by Paul Clarke

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