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Government digital roadmap has direction but limited detail

13/06/22

Mark Say Managing Editor

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Cabinet Office wall plaque
Image source: istock.com/violinconcertono3

Those of us who have been around this sector for a long time tend to be sceptical when we hear of a new central government strategy for how it uses digital and data.

They tend to point to familiar shortcomings, repeat the same ambitions, identify similar priorities and use some well worn phrases, to the point that the first question is always ‘So what’s so different this time around?’

It may be unfair, as technology and government’s grasp of how to use it for better services has moved forward over the years, and the starting points of strategy change; but it always leaves a feeling that progress been slow and not enough lessons have been learned.

Which has fed into some of the early comments on social media about the document published last week by the Cabinet Office – ‘roadmap’ in its title but referred to in the publication announcement as a strategy – which sets out the Government’s plans for 2022-25.

It has to be said that there is a lot that is familiar in the introductory sections, with talk about matching the best online services in the private sector, replacing costly and outdated technology, getting better value from procurement and a need to transform capabilities. All good but also a repetition of earlier strategies.

Six missions

There is also plenty in the descriptions of the six missions that has been on the agenda for a long time, such as improving the quality of data, ensuring technology is secure and unlocking digital transformation.

This could all have more weight if it referred back to earlier initiatives to identify progress to date and identify any shortcomings; but it is presented as if it is all something new.

Other elements, however, suggest there has been some solid thinking, especially in relation to how the various measures will be pushed through. These include the naming of a permanent secretary from a department for each of the missions, the Digital and Data Board of senior civil servants providing overall governance with a review every six months, and the identification of 75 services targeted for radical improvement.

There is also the delegation by HM Treasury to the Central Digital and Data Office (CCDO) to work with departments on aligning the criteria to approve any departmental spending with the strategy. This aimed at ensuring any new procurement will support not just departmental priorities but the strategy missions.

Other elements look very significant but come with little detail. This is particularly so for the emphasis on the importance of the One Login programme for digital services, which is given one sentence in the document (although the Government Digital Service is making presentations). It also comes with what looks a rather limited ambition for departments to begin their onboarding to the service by 2025.

There is a similarly brief mention of a mobile app strategy to be developed by CDDO and departments.

Need for definition

Targets for 50 of the top 75 services to meet a ‘great’ standard by 2025, and for half of high priority data quality issues to be resolved are also weakened by the absence of definition of what they mean.

The feeds an impression that the detail of strategy is still a work in progress, which raises the question of whether the more difficult elements will ever be fully implemented.

Overall, it shows good intent and provides grounds for encouragement in some areas, but is likely to leave the sceptics feeling it needs more candour and detail to meet all of its ambitions.

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