UK ‘losing momentum’ in pursuit of digital utopia

A scathing report from the House Committee on Science and Technology has suggesting the Government has lost its way on its quest to evolve the UK into a digital society.

There are positive steps being made, though the Committee has pointed to several flaws, including a lack of leadership. The general message from the Committee of one of unstructured, inefficient progress and ineffective programmes. It doesn’t paint the prettiest of pictures for a country which so proudly (and regularly) preaches its leadership position in the global digital economy.

“The potential that digital Government can bring is huge: transforming the relationship between the citizen and the State, saving money and making public services more efficient and agile,” said Norman Lamb, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee. “However, it is clear that the current digital service offered by the Government has lost momentum and is not transforming the citizen-State relationship as it could.

“Single unique identifiers can transform the efficiency and transparency of Government services. The Government should ensure there is a national debate on single unique identifiers for citizens to use when accessing public services along with the right of the citizen to know exactly what the Government is doing with their data.

“In the UK, we have no idea when and how Government departments are accessing and using our data. We could learn from the very different relationship between citizen and the state in Estonia.”

The Government Digital Service is a unit in the Cabinet Office tasked with transforming the provision of online public services. The GDS was set-up in April 2011 with a mantra of ‘Digital by Default’ to create a new culture and baseline for the UK economy and society. Unfortunately for the GDS, the report suggests there is still too much of a reliance on legacy technologies, while a lack of leadership in the department is faltering progress.

For those who are currently in charge of the department, the emergence of this report should be viewed as even more worrying. The Committee suggests that since the departure of former Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude, and the subsequent resignation of several senior civil servants, there has been ‘slowing’ momentum, pointing towards international rankings where several countries have overtaken the UK in digital preparedness.

Another point which has been raised in the report is the absence of a Chief Data Officer. The appointment of such an individual has been a commitment from the Government since 2017, though it seems other issues have taken priority.

There are various other issues raised by the report, including a lack of a centralised strategy to deal with cybersecurity, though the overall tone of the report seems to be focused on a lack of action. The Government has been preaching the benefits of the digital society, promising overhaul of departments and a new relationship with data, though little of this seems to have translated to action in public sector departments.

In proposing the introduction of ‘Digital Champions’ in each department, the Committee are seemingly hoping good intentions and proclamations lead to real-world changes. However, the risk of the ‘Digital Champion’ is one which every business will know. Appointments will have to be made, but appropriate power must be allocated to the individual to ensure changes are forced through. There are too many examples of meaningless job titles which result in zero impact to the organization.

Perhaps the biggest issue which has been highlighted is a shortage of skills in the various departments and a lack of data-sharing between the departments or with enterprise and the general public. Estonia has been used as an example of the success of an open-data model and without this open approach the foundations for a data-economy cannot be created.

Ultimately, this is a report few will be surprised to see. Public sector organizations generally have to be dragged through any transformation strategy, and without driving leadership at the top, change will not filter down through the various departments. New leadership is perhaps needed and new roles with power need to be created; left to create its own fate, the public sector will not change.