UK’s digital strategy has lost momentum, say MPs

By on 19/07/2019
Norman Lamb MP said government must re-address its approach to digitisation quickly if it wants to retain public trust. (Image courtesy: Alex Folkes/fishnik.com).

The UK government’s digital strategy has lost momentum, according to a new report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

The report says that the Government Digital Service (GDS), which was created in 2011, has “lost its way” and that its role is becoming “increasingly unclear”. Its findings chime with those of the latest United Nations international e-government survey, in which the UK fell from first place to fourth between 2016 and 2018.

According to the report, this has been caused by lack of political leadership in digitisation since Francis Maude left his role as minister for the Cabinet Office in 2015 and the departure of senior civil servants from the GDS, which has significantly eroded its relevance.  

Huge potential

Norman Lamb MP, chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said: “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. 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.”  

He added that as well as a lack of leadership, there is evidence of skill shortages and legacy systems, which increase the risk of cyber attacks. To address these challenges, said Lamb, the government must be willing to invest in order to “save in the future”.   

“The government must re-address its approach to digitisation quickly if it wants to retain public trust and its envied position on the world stage,” he added.   

The report’s findings mirror the insights of those who took part in a panel debate hosted by the Institute of Government last year, who agreed that while the GDS had made early progress, digital reforms had slowed. During the event, Martha Lane Fox, the digital entrepreneur whose 2010 report set out the blueprint for GDS, said that “the absence of deep digital leadership and ambition in this country is profoundly disturbing”.

Digital champions

The Science and Technology Committee’s key recommendations include appointing a chief data officer by the end of 2019; introducing a ministerial digital champion in every department; adopting metrics of success that departments and agencies should report against annually; and conducting an audit of all legacy systems across government.

Recommendations for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport include conducting an audit of data-sharing amongst government departments to determine where best practice is taking place and where improvements could be made, and ensuring the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation assesses public opinion on government data use annually.   

The report also calls for a national debate on ‘single unique identifiers’ for citizens to use when accessing public services, and for citizens to be given the right to know exactly what government is doing with their data – an approach spearheaded by Estonia’s government, which the committee said the UK could learn from.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said the report contained some interesting ideas, “many of which are already being acted upon under existing projects”. They cited the Technology Innovation Strategy, published last month, in which tackling legacy technology across government was identified as a priority.

“Our work in this area will help us to build on the UK’s position as a world leader in digital government, which sees our work consistently ranked in the top five of the UN’s digital government survey,” the spokesperson said. “Further building our reputation on the world stage, the GDS has also helped to establish national digital services for the US, Australia and Canada.”

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

3 Comments

  1. Mark E. Geres

    19/07/2019 at

    Implementing digital strategy? Capturing lessons learned should be an on-going effort throughout the life of the project. It is not necessary to wait until the end of the project for the learning to occur. Lessons can be identified at any point during the project. Governance and oversight auditors should ensure that project management information systems are in place and unbiased information is accessible all the time. Governments of — Canada, US, Australia and UK, are you doing this well? Are you sharing your lessons learned? Governance and oversight monitoring to ensure lessons are shared and applied?

  2. john mortimer

    22/07/2019 at

    GDS has lost its way, and that has been known for some time. Part of that has been as described above, but the other problem has been that it has been a Digital Strategy. Such a strategy if going to simply silo Digita lin the way that it is being implemented in Local Government – piecemeal and not in coordination with government services. GDS is not only about Digital, it is far more about attitude, culture, techniques, integration, support,
    If, the strategy for digital is combined with the strategy for Service Delivery, then we might make some progress. If not, we will simply end up with more services as effective as Universal Credit, and less integration of Digital into the departments and modernisation of local and central government attitudes and practices.

  3. Jeremy Baum

    23/07/2019 at

    While I agree with a lot reported in this article, I believe there are some other reasons why the UK may have slipped down the e-government rankings. (Leaving aside the question of how such ranking can be assessed in a meaningful way given the complexity.) Firstly, GDS started quite rightly by picking the ‘low hanging fruit’, as well as correctly focussing on governance and culture initially. The services now being made ‘digital’ include more complex processes that are much more challenging. In addition to this, for the last 3 years there has been a necessary focus on responding to Brexit and related uncertainties, which I am sure has to some degree caused delays. In any case, rather than ranking I think the focus should be on the proportion of interactions with government that are available online.

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