Opinion: Labour’s review of digital services
The government’s ambitious service reform plans effectively ignore digital exclusion, argues Labour front-bencher Chi Onwurah
“We need a new culture of people-powered public services,” Ed Miliband recently argued. “We should always be seeking to put more power in the hands of patients, parents and all the users of services – giving them voice as well as choice.”
The Digital Government Review which I launched this month with Michael Dugher MP, the shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, addresses the role of technology in realising the new culture Ed Miliband described in his recent speech on public service reform.
The review will set out clear goals for a digital agenda that will improve services and empower citizens whilst being efficient and cost-effective.
This government has made progress on digital with its Government Digital Service (GDS) – bringing government websites together, getting more data online, and improving services such as that for renewing your tax disc. But it has effectively ignored digital inclusion, with the result that some of the most vulnerable are losing out because they cannot engage with government on the terms that government’s imposing on them. I am regularly asked to help constituents ‘sanctioned’ because they were unable to sign on or search for jobs online. And whilst people may have a choice of which broadband provider to use – if they can afford it – they are rarely involved in creating their own social care or bus network. That’s hardly power to the people.
Government has also paid scant attention to digital inclusion within the civil service. Whilst digital is supposedly championed in the Cabinet Office, the civil servants on the frontline are disempowered, prevented from using social media, and constrained by clunky legacy systems.
I worked in ICT for 23 years before I entered parliament, mainly building out new technology in the private sector. I know that whatever the problem, technology alone is never the answer. It is only by putting technology at the disposal of motivated people with the right systems and processes to support them that we can realise its true potential.
Digital transformation of government cannot happen unless public servants are an integral part of it. It is public servants who can empower citizens and third parties to co-create the services they need, putting citizens in control.
Our Digital Government Review will be led by an independent advisory board with experience and talents drawn from central and local government, consumers, and tech and industry groups.
Under the guidance of the advisory board and with contributions from a wide range of stakeholders across the country, the review will deliver a framework for transforming digital government, together with concrete policy proposals to make digital services work for the many. As Ed set out, we want to engage people in the design and production of digital government services, and to make sure people have the skills to co-create the services they need.
Some in the tech world have complained that this review is politicalising digital government. My response is that digital government, like all government, is political. We see digital government as a way to empower citizens and enable the public sector to do more with less; the Tories see it as just another way to slim down the state and deliver a public sector which does less with less. But at the same time, there are aspects of digital government which are cross-party – and need to be, if we are to build a platform that lasts longer than one parliamentary cycle. And both individuals and businesses need confidence that open data formats and open standards will last beyond the next election.
That is why I shall be writing to Cabinet Office ministers Francis Maude and Nick Hurd to ask for meetings to discuss the long-term, cross-party consensus on digital government, and visiting the Government Digital Service to see the progress being made there.
I also want the views of civil servants. The review will be issuing a formal call for evidence as well as holding workshops, round tables, ‘unconferences’, and ‘hangouts’ across the country and virtually. We are asking for examples of where digital government is working, should be praised, and can provide a model for other parts of the public sector. But we are also interested in examples of where digital government has failed – as it has for some my constituents in Newcastle– and where policy and digital can combine to put more power in the hands of citizens and improve their lives.
We are organising round table discussions with civil servant trade unions and interest groups. And you can send your thoughts, in confidence if necessary, to our team.
We want to take the time now to understand how to make digital government work better for everyone.