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Government Urged To Create New Digital Transformation Minister Role

The government has stated it's aim to become a world leader in technology (Alamy)

6 min read

The government should appoint a dedicated minister across the Cabinet Office and Treasury to lead a much-needed digital transformation of government, according to a new report.

Global Counsel, a public affairs advisory firm that provides advice to businesses and government agencies, is publishing a report on Wednesday that will urge the government to create a new role to lead the digitalisation of Whitehall, along with a number of other recommendations. 

One of the lead researchers suggested that a “digital champion” to lead technological reform in government could enable change to be “led from the centre”.

A Cabinet Office source told PoliticsHome that while the government would agree with the “essence” of the report, it was unlikely the Cabinet Office would prioritise creating a ministerial role for the task.

The paper was written with the input of John Gieve, former permanent secretary at the Home Office following a career within the Treasury, and had contributions from multiple government officials, think tanks and business organisations.

Aiming to set out its recommendations to government ahead of next general election, the report warns that the government might fail to achieve its aims of improving productivity and becoming a world technology leader if it does not prioritise transforming its technological infrastructure. 

“Without seizing the opportunities presented by developing technology and sufficient prioritisation, the UK risks falling further behind its international counterparts", the report stated.

“The technology to achieve these ambitions is already readily available, raising the question of what is holding the government back. The government will require a clear strategy fusing realistic short-, medium- and long-term goals to achieve full digital transformation.”

The report highlighted how people are currently “slipping through the cracks” of public services, partly due to gaps in data sharing and technological capacity. 

“Government has poor data on the full cost of its existing services, and specifically, a lack of visibility into additional business and people costs of the continued use of unmodernised digital services,” a National Audit Office spokesperson said. 

Poppy Woodcock, senior associate at Global Counsel, said that although she does not think employing a minister for digital reform will be a priority for the government any time soon, she believes it would create the necessary urgency for the task.

“The first and foremost point is that it would be their only role, it is enough to fill one person's portfolio,” she told PoliticsHome. 

“Secondly, we'd like to see them sit across the Cabinet Office and the Treasury: ultimately, the recommendations we've made are only going to work with full Treasury buy-in.

“An advantage of it being their only role is they can build relationships with other departments based on digital transformation, which avoids it being traded off with other priorities.”

Currently, this brief is incorporated into the role of Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin. 

A Cabinet Office source told PoliticsHome that the government agreed with many of the recommendations in principle, but had to be realistic about the "financial constraints" of introducing or adapting technology in government. Creating a new ministerial role is therefore not seen as a "priority" by government. 

Woodcock added that many stakeholders they had spoken to were concerned about the “siloed” nature of government departments that are not willing to work together in terms of sharing data or resources.

“So it's quite tricky for the whole government to move as one,” she explained.

“The government needs to choose two priorities and just push those forward rather than each department doing their own initiatives. In terms of wholesale transformation, it really needs to be led from the centre.”

The report recommends that the government should introduce a framework for data sharing between different departments and between central and local governments. 

It also explores the potential use of a single digital dashboard collating data from across Whitehall, with MJS Healthcare consultant Matthew Swindells arguing that this would allow policy work to be informed by evolving, real-time data – something which is currently rarely achieved due to technological constraints. 

“Consumers have become used to interacting with private companies seamlessly, with digital platforms focused on convenience, speed and proactive recommendations […] why should the public not expect that of the public sector?” argued a spokesperson from the Tony Blair Institute.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) has been developing the “One Login for Government”, a “one-stop-shop” for digitally enabled services. The report however, suggests the government should be more ambitious and create a “no-stop-shop” where government proactively reach out to people who are in need of public services. 

Woodcock said it would make it more likely that people would take up the benefits that are available. 

“I think proactive public services are quite a long way away,” she admitted. 

“But it's often the people that need public services the most who are least able to access them, through poor digital literacy or just an inability to access computers.

“So if the government could practically reach out to them and say ‘this is available to you’, I think we'd see a lot of people taking up the benefits that are available to them.”

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) could also bolster productivity across Whitehall operations. Although various departments are already using AI for a range of purposes, usage is limited when restricted by using legacy IT systems that are decades old and in need of replacement. 

The Cabinet Office found in 2019 that the UK spent £2.3 bn of taxpayer money a year on running and maintaining legacy IT systems, out of a £4.7 bn total annual IT budget – a challenge recognised by Dame Meg Hillier, a Labour MP and chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

“There are many legacy systems from the 1970s … it is a huge task across government, let alone in areas like the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence, where there are additional challenges that we have looked at separately,” she said.

The Global Counsel report will be published in full on Wednesday 13 September, with Labour MP and shadow minister of state for the Cabinet Office Baroness Chapman speaking at the launch event.

A government spokesperson said: “We are stepping up our approach to data and digital, and embracing digital transformation and AI.

“Minister for the Cabinet Office Jeremy Quin recently announced a new digital secondment pilot and cross-government apprenticeship programme, which will attract and retain the best in digital talent.

"The Central Digital and Data Office is playing a leading role in delivering long-term digital transformation across government and ensuring government is keeping pace with technological change”.

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