Ushering in a digital age of government

4 December 2014

An independent review into digital government commissioned by the Labour party has highlighted the opportunities for improved public service delivery and new ways of helping public service users offered by digital technology. The review moves the focus of the debate on digital government beyond digitisation of transactions and processes, onto the value to society, communities and citizens. As such, the review merits a thorough reading and debate of its 35 recommendations.

In welcoming the report produced by the review, Making Digital Government Work for Everyone, Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, highlighted the potential for improving inclusion and empowerment through a shift to digital government, as well as for more cost-effective and efficient government and public service delivery. She emphasised that for the Labour Party digital government is not about a smaller state but facilitating empowerment of the many.

The review merits a thorough reading and debate of its 35 recommendations. A Reform policy dinner led by Chi Onwurah MP following on from the the report’s launch centred on two main themes. Firstly, the potential for a digital, post-bureaucratic, age of government enabled by data sharing; and secondly, the model through which a digital revolution of government and public service delivery should be delivered.

Digital technologies offer the prospect of transposing us to a third age of government, where the constraints of earlier industrial and technocratic eras no longer exist. Government is undergoing a shift from towards a more decentralised, digital delivery based on data sharing. Achieving this will require striking a balance between the efficiencies and opportunities of data sharing and the sensitivity towards data sharing of the British public based on a strong tradition for civil rights and liberties. The report proposes a review into data sharing and society, emphasising the need for an ethical approach to data sharing. While the Labour party has already proposed one fundamental principle for data sharing, namely users’ ownership of personal data, they must set out their position in more detail.

The Coalition Government through the Government Digital Service (GDS) has made significant strides towards a digital transformation of government. GDS has had a disruptive impact on both central government departments and relations with large incumbent suppliers, and has – as acknowledged by the independent review – created a basis on which to build digital government. However, the revolution has yet to be unleashed. The dinner discussion identified two alternatives to the GDS command and control model: market-driven innovation and grassroots-led modernisation. Command and control may have been the right model for creating the foundation but there appears to be wide agreement that it is unsuitable for promoting a digital revolution at local authority and public service delivery level.

Making Digital Government Work for Everyone is an important contribution to the debate on delivering a truly digital government. The themes of data sharing and delivery models are just a few among the many important discussions raised in the report, including digital inclusion, digital skills and leadership across the public sector as well as public sector IT procurement. Deficiencies in the Civil Service’s technical and contract management skills have long been recognised, and was a recurrent theme in Reform’s recent essay collection on How to run a country. Bringing about the digital age of government is not, however, a question of strengthening functional professions and leadership but ensuring that all public sector workers – from the policy professionals to frontline workers – are equipped to design and implement public service delivery from a user-centric perspective through digital platforms.

Reform will continue to engage with and participate in the debate in the run up to, and beyond, the General Election.

Camilla Hagelund is a Senior Researcher at Reform.

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