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Labour ponders 'new kind of digital government'



The government should 'urgently deliver' an amended identity assurance scheme, publish data on the performance of public bodies and bring local authorities on board the digital by default programme. These are among the recommendations of a wide-ranging and often provocative vision for 'a new kind of digital government' commissioned by the Labour Party.

Although written to catch the eye of Labour's manifesto team, the review is much more than a partisan attack - several proposals, mildly rebranded, could become policy whoever is in government after next May.

The overall thrust of the Digital Government Review, commissioned by Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for digital government, is that the current effort to transform government is being driven by a central, technocratic programme and ignores society's wider interests. Instead, "we need to recognize the place that our democracy itself plays in prioritization. We have democratically elected leaders constantly identifying and debating major issues and proposing policies. Yet our best digital expertise is often not focused on these major issues, and is instead asked to digitize existing processes and services."

One example of such a disconnect is the identity assurance programme. The review's authors say they were "extremely surprised" to see that only private sector providers were selected by the programme when public sector documents such as passports and driving licences are widely seen as authoritative proofs of identity. The apparently circular process of signing up to a private business to authenticate identity with a public body is confusing to citizens when government is currently the identity provider for most public service. The review says the government must 'urgently deliver on' identity assurance while "investigating the reason for ongoing delays to the programme; the potential need for legislation, the dispute resolution and support structures in place in case of failure; the audit structures to ensure that data is kept secure; and how to meet the expected demand for non-private sector identity providers".

Another example is the gap between the exemplar services promoted by the Government Digital Service and the skills of their likely users. Two of the services, including online voter registration, require users to reach level six on a digital inclusion scale of nine. This excludes 21% of the population. Of the rest, 16 required level seven ("basic digital skills") and five required level 8 ("confident"). "People with skills below these levels do not benefit from the new digital services," it says.

Strong digital inclusion and assisted digital strategies alongside the new exemplars would have helped address the gap, the review says. It suggests strengthened "governance gates" to ensure that digital services are accessible (with assistance or not) by everyone before a service moves to a live status.

In the meantime, the government should "lift its ambitions for inclusion and build a programme to provide digital skills to an additional 4.9 million people during the next parliament". This is the only spending commitment in the plan, the review maintains - everything else can come from existing digital spending under "a rational reprioritization of effort to create a fairer society".

Part of this reprioritsation involves ending the Cabinet Office's dominance of the agenda. "Many of the basic lessons of digital services have been learnt. We would expect that central government departments can now complete the task of digitizing the remaining 'government transactions' services themselves."

Local government especially should be brought on board. "Despite some success, digital services in local government are not being transformed as fast as those in central government," the review says, conceding that "This is a more difficult challenge than central government."

Among the proposals is one reminiscent of the Labour government's local e-government programme: "Create a new organisation to work with local authorities to build 'local digital factories' that will deliver solutions to common challenges like planning or waste disposal".

Welcome moves towards open data also need a change of emphasis, the review says. It recommends that open performance data should be placed in parallel with open spending data, "allowing spend data to be seen in the context of the performance produced".

As expected, the review condemns the current government for the "spectacular missed opportunity" to create a national, open address dataset as part of the national information infrastructure. "As part of a general move to open up geospatial data the UK should have an open, authoritative and definitive address dataset by 2021. This will increase economic growth, reduce wasted effort and improve access to public and private services by all citizens."

On broader questions, the review calls for a number of wide policy debates. A "considerable tension" is created by the question of whether digital services should be mandatory. "This is a major public policy area for ministers and politicians. It is akin to the decisions on which lifestyle choice the NHS supports or the uniform tariff elements of the Royal Mail. It is a debate that needs to take place, and one likely to boast no one-size-fits-all solutions.

Another is how to embed trust, ethics and security into digital services, particularly where it involves sharing personal data. The current government's attempt at open policy making "is misdirected, lacks visibility, is highly technocratic and limited in its scope, being conducted largely on the government's terms".

The Digital Government Review has been submitted to the Labour Party's policy team. It remains to be seen how much of it makes its way into party policy, especially where entrenched interests such as public sector unions are involved. But the core message: "that we think as rigorously as possible about the societal value of a service, not simply the cost to government and how it can be reduced" seems to tick all the boxes for next May's manifesto.

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