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Two decades of digital government strategies



Remember Tony Blair promising to transform government? That was 10 years ago this year. One of a library of strategies, most of which achieved little.

April fool's day this year - just a month before the general election - will mark the month of reckoning for the Government Digital Strategy.

That is the deadline set in November 2012 for when high volume "exemplar" service transformations from seven Whitehall departments are to be implemented. According to the Government Digital Service dashboard, eight are now live and 15 in beta testing. By the end of March a way should be found to classify the two still technically rated as alpha phase - Land Registry's digital-first service and the Department for Work and Pensions' transaction for claiming personal independence payment - as "implemented".

Indeed Land Registry announced this week that its service will be in public beta by March.

By the standards of British government IT strategies, this is pretty good going. Successive governments have been turning them out for the best part of two decades now. Some were quietly shelved after a couple of years, at least one became a monster.

The first, and shortest lived, was the last Conservative government's Government Direct, published in 1996, in the final months of John Major's administration in an era of dial-up modems and the Spice Girls in the charts.

Government Direct, the first green paper to be published as a CD Rom (it was also downloadable in Word 6) set out a vision of citizens paying their taxes, receiving benefits and taking part in the democratic process via electronic channels. However within months, its brand name was airbrushed from history by Tony Blair's incoming administration.

For all its commitment to modernity, New Labour's strategy for electronic public services was a long time in the making. Modernising Government, a green paper published in 1999, set a deadline of 2008 for "e-enabling" 100% of public services. Even at the height of the first dotcom boom, this was a revolutionary idea. As late as 1998, a highly influential US book Banishing Bureaucracy (David Osborne and Peter Plastrik, Plume Books) were able to expound the idea of a "fundamental transformation of public systems and organisations to create dramatic increases in their effectiveness, efficiency, adaptability and capacity to innovate" without mentioning the web.

Modernising Government was put into action by the newly created Office of the E-Envoy. The following year, in a brief flurry of interest, Blair brought the 2008 target forward to the new European target of 2005 and threw money at grandiose and disconnected plans to drag public services into the digital age, regardless of business case or take-up. A classic example was the e-enabling of the process for applying to conduct burials at sea.

By 2005, the 'e-enabling' target had become an embarrassment - though several local authorities were able to boast that they had achieved it, with a far wider selection of services than those administered by Whitehall. The next strategy envisaged a more joined-up approach.

Transformational Government, the world of former Accenture managing director Ian Watmore, appeared in November 2005. Its emphasis was on sharing services and shared data. Introducing the document, Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote: "It is a simple fact that we are stronger and more effective when we work together than apart".

Sadly for the public purse, the strategy had little impact. In 2006, an authoritative academic study of government IT programmes around the world by Helen Margetts and Patrick Dunleavy painted a devastating picture. The study found that the UK had "the most concentrated government IT market in the world, with a near-monopolistic lead supplier (EDS), huge contract sizes, poorly understood use of private finance initiative (PFI) contracts for inappropriate IT projects and virtually no in-house capacity to manage (let alone develop) IT systems."

The following year, the loss of two CD Roms containing the entire national insurance database kicked a political storm from which the Labour government's "big IT' ambitions never recovered.

By then however the Cabinet Office's best strategic brains were pondering a different approach. Labour's last strategic vision emerged in the independent "Power of Information" report, published in summer 2007. It made the case for a "web 2.0" approach to e-government, of opening government data and encouraging engagement with citizens online. The strategy was saved from obscurity when an ambitious and IT-savvy Cabinet Office minister, Tom Watson, decided that implementing its approach was a way for him to make a mark beyond being held responsible for every government computer disaster.

The Power of Information also chimed with the philosophy of the Conservative Party, which went in to the 2010 election with very similar policy ideas - and promising to end the culture of billion-pound IT contracts. The coalition's Government Digital Strategy, masterminded by the Office of the e-Envoy's successor, the Government Digital Service, appeared in November 2012. It has - so far - enjoyed a more positive press than any of its predecessors.

The secret of success appears to be to keep your ambitions well defined and modest - and to align your deadlines with the life cycle of a government. Political parties drawing up manifestoes for May would do well to bear that in mind.

1996: Government Direct
1999: Modernising Government
2000: UK Online
2004: Directgov
2005: Transformational Government
2007: Power of Information
2012: Government digital strategy


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