Delays to government digital strategy "risk killing reform momentum"
Repeatedly-delayed transformation strategy had been expected "before Christmas"
The government’s chance of meeting its self-imposed deadline of publishing the transformation strategy before Christmas have once again narrowed as critics accuse ministers of trying to “sneak it out” as parliament rises for recess.
The publication of the strategy, which was first mooted at the end of last year, was pencilled in for the start of 2016, but Brexit and changes to government leadership have pushed it back.
The Cabinet Office said in the autumn that the strategy would be published “before Christmas” and it was thought that this effectively meant it coming out before parliament rises for recess on Wednesday.
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But in a statement sent to CSW's sister site PublicTechnology, a spokesman for the Cabinet Office said only that it would be published “in due course”.
The latest delay could be due to discussions within Whitehall about feedback on the strategy – a draft of which has been ready for a number of weeks – but pressure is mounting on the government to publish the document.
“Further delays in publishing the digital strategy suggest that the government is not making it a priority. This is a mistake,” the Institute for Government’s programme director Daniel Thornton told PublicTechnology. “Momentum needs to be kept up.”
Meanwhile, shadow digital minster Louise Haigh has accused the government of lacking digital ambition and attempting to “dampen down” expectations with its continued delays.
“Industry, tech start-ups, consumers and commentators are worried it is late because they have so little to say, and the fact they are looking to sneak it out at the end of the parliamentary session tells you all you need to know about this government’s ambitions for digital: second-best, an after-thought,” said Haigh.
However, Matthew Trimming, founder of consultancy META, sounded a note of caution, saying that the government was better to wait until the strategy was completed properly, rather than "rushing to meet an arbitrary deadline".
Initially billed as a digital strategy, the document has also seen a significant shift in tone, now known simply as the “Government Transformation Strategy”.
According to those who have seen the document, it now puts digital into a whole-of-government context and calls for a more fundamental shake-up of Whitehall’s processes.
It is thought that the first version of the strategy was written and ready for publication before the UK’s vote to leave the European Union changed the political landscape, bringing with it a new prime minister, new ministers and new priorities for the civil service.
Shortly after the referendum, the Government Digital Service saw a surprise change in leadership, as Stephen Foreshew-Cain was replaced by the Department for Work and Pensions’ business transformation director Kevin Cunnington.
It is likely this prompted a rethink of both the role of GDS and of digital in government. PublicTechnology understands that there is likely to be a separate document published that looks at the future of GDS, and that will set out its priorities along similar lines to those discussed by Cunnington in previous interviews and blogposts.
This was for GDS to focus on three broad areas: to support, enable and assure. Within the enable strand is a plan to create a profession for digital, data and technology within the civil service, while the support strand will focus on digital skills training for civil servants and citizens.
The assurance strand will focus on GOV.UK Verify and data, with data also expected to be a major focus of the main Government Transformation Strategy and to include the creation of the role of chief data officer for government, after the current open data champion Paul Malty announced earlier this year that he was leaving GDS at Christmas.
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