Thinktank report warns that Whitehall must get a grip on ‘painfully slow’ progress
The UK needs a minister responsible for digital government to drive the necessary change and standards, a specialist thinktank has made clear in a new report on the subject.
The Institute for Government (IfG) has made the assertion two weeks after the general election, following which it is still not clear which minister is in charge of digital government, leaving a potentially dangerous vacuum in digital policy-making.
In its report Improving the Management of Digital Government, the IfG says that, without a strong minister in charge, the Government Digital Service (GDS) will be ineffective across Whitehall - let alone the wider public sector.
“The recent cyber attack on the NHS shows that the government must urgently improve digital government,” said the report’s author, Daniel Thornton. He described progress towards digital government as “painfully slow”, noting that GDS standards need to be clarified and extended.
At the forefront
The institute acknowledges in the report that the UK emerged at the top of the UN e-government survey last year and that the Conservative party’s election manifesto commits the new government to being “at the forefront of using digital technology in all its systems”.
But it finds plenty to fault. The WannaCry cyberattack in May “showed the fragility of some of the systems being used in the public sector – in this case, a failure to update Windows”.
Meanwhile, “the spread of new digital services for the public has been slower than planned. And departments resent interference and resist new ways of working. Much remains to be done if the manifesto commitments are to be met and the opportunities of the digital age seized.”
Among the report’s recommendations are that:
- GDS’s standards must be clarified, distinguished from “guidance” and applied more deeply in departments and more widely in the public sector.
- GDS should create a store for application programming interfaces (APIs) for the public sector that encourages reuse and supports the development of API standards.
- The Government should urgently clarify the roles of GOV.UK Verify and the Government Gateway, to spread the benefits of secure identity verification.
- The Treasury should work with GDS to consider which life events, such as registering a birth or selling a house, could benefit from new services, and fund their development.
- Finally, the prime minister should appoint a minister for digital government to lead improvements in digital government.
Speaking at the launch event, Thornton said that GDS has been successful in promulgating standards, but it needs to increase the focus to make the standards more clear and extend their use in other parts of the public sector.
"We're still a long way from a modular system where every bit of the public sector can talk to every other bit in a standard way, and provide the management information for department heads," he said. "There has been very little progress on the internal organisation of government."
Speakers also emphasised the urgent need for an implementation plan in support of the Government's Transformation Strategy that was published in February. Thornton said it is a good approach but that it needs the implementation plan to give it some bite.
Additional reporting by Mark Say