Can the government pass the IfG’s five key digital tests?

Influential think tank says we should also be worried by the non-appearance of a coherent plan for digital reform

Posted 19 December 2016 at 9:30am by

The Institute for Government (IfG) has issued five tests it says the government’s imminent digital strategy need to pass to address its concerns – when it ever gets published.

“Government strategies are often aspirational rather than real – as we saw with the Single Departmental Plans,” warned the IfG’s Daniel Thornton in a new blog post.

Thornton, a Whitehall veteran who now acts as the body’s Programme Director for all things civil service, says that as a result, his team wants real specifics on what HMG will do to make government digital.

These are:

Set a measureable baseline for example of how many transactional services there are, how many are digital, and how many of those are digital to a decent standard
Identify clear priorities and trade-offs for example whether the Government Digital Service (GDS) will continue to build applications for use across government, or will move more towards supporting departments in transforming their services
Explain how resources, including the £450m for digital George Osborne announced in 2015, will be allocated to these priorities
Explain how digital thinking will be brought in early in the policy making process, and how governance of digital projects will be improved
Clarify roles and responsibilities so that the centre and departments know what they must do – something that should include responsibilities for developing digital capability, where we found that government was struggling.

Thornton quotes former PR David Cameron to the effect that “making government digital” involves “saving money and improving services at the same time”.

“We look forward to seeing a digital strategy that will make this happen,” notes Thornton, alluding to the on-going delay in formal publication of the strategy, which was originally set for 2015 release.

The IfG also finds cause for concern in the absence of digital Whitehall talk in Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement.

“In 2015, George Osborne heralded a ‘digital revolution’ in Whitehall. Philip Hammond said nothing about this. Theresa May has also stayed silent on the subject, in contrast to David Cameron’s enthusiastic support,” Thornton points out.

At the end of October, IfG issues a detailed reportMaking a Success of Digital Government, which said that after five years of getting more services online, “government is hitting a wall”.

“Departments need to make tough spending cuts, as well as managing Brexit. They will only be able to maintain public services if they get more efficient – and making the best use of digital technology is vital for this. Although new technology is required, the biggest challenges are about changing the way government works, which means redesigning services and the organisations that provide them [which] needs leadership from the top.

“Tinkering around the edges of digital government has taken us only so far – now we need a fundamental change in the government’s approach,” he adds.

“The starting point is recognising that digital is not just for geeks anymore; everyone in government must work to make it a success.

“There are huge potential savings to be made if the Government gets this right – which makes it all the more disappointing that the PM and Chancellor have not been as explicit about their commitment to digital government as their predecessors.”