Another year of lame excuses on the UK Government Digital Strategy

I’ve been keeping a eye on the saga regarding the Government Digital Service (GDS) strategy, the UK government’s own roadmap for digital transformation across Whitehall departments.

This week the saga got even more complicated.

Twelve months of excuses

You may recall that last year the then-Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy, Ed Vaizey MP, ran a three-week consultation on the GDS over the Christmas break.

Government consultations normally run for several months and are well publicised. Running a consultation for just three weeks, much less announcing it on the 29th of December, was – how shall I put this? – dodgy as hell.

Unsurprisingly, neither a report nor a strategy resulted from the consultation. It disappeared into thin air.

In March Ed Vaizey said the ensuing strategy would not be published until after June, following the Brexit referendum. Nothing resulted from that either.

In July the the Business, Innovation, and Skills Committee of the House of Commons demanded answers:

We look forward to the publication of the Government’s Digital Strategy, in the summer of 2016 (six months later than expected), which should explain how the Government will build on its success. We regret this delay, and call on the Government to explain the reasons for it, and why they initiated a three-week consultation over the Christmas break on what the Government should include in the strategy.

They also noted the obvious:

The Government must also explain how the Digital Strategy will be affected by the referendum result. It should also set out in its reply and in the Digital Strategy a list of specific, current EU negotiations relating to the digital economy. At the forefront of the issues explained, the Digital Strategy must address head on the status of digitally-skilled workers from the European Union who currently work in the UK. The digital sector relies on skilled workforce from the European Union, and those individuals’ rights to remain in the country must be addressed, and at the earliest opportunity.

Nothing resulted from that either.

So where are we now?

Not much of a strategy

Last week I got wind of some gossip that the strategy, which has now been ‘aspirationalised’ from a workplan to a full blown Transformation Strategy, would be shipping before Christmas.

That timing, once again, is dodgy as hell.

A leak of the strategy (government digital departments seem to be very leaky lately) suggested that the document focuses on broader aspirations and concepts rather than SMART targets and outcomes.

The leaked strategy sets forth the priorities for 2017-2020 as follows:

  • Design and deliver joined up services
  • Deliver the major transformation programmes
  • Establish a whole government approach to transformation

Has it really taken over a year to come up with waffle like that?

Here are the kind of questions it should be addressing:

Good luck with that.

And what about the House of Commons’ demand that the strategy reflect Brexit’s impact on Whitehall digital?From what’s been leaked so far, the strategy says:

The result of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union has shown that government needs to be flexible and responsive to emerging priorities…GDS will lead a conversation across government about how digital government can enable the public sector to deal more effectively with change.

Again, how does it take five months to write that?

More delays and more excuses

Regardless of what is or is not in the strategy, we now know we are not going to see it in 2016.

Theresa May has put her heels down on it.

Number 10 and the Cabinet Office have offered no indication of when we might see it. New year? Next year? No one knows.

Labour and the Lib Dems have demanded answers. Expect deafening silence and sneering in return.

In the meantime, Government Computing reports that some progress does seem to be happening on Whitehall digital, just not in the strategy:

On Friday (December 16), the Cabinet Office did update its five year single departmental plan that sets out key objectives between 2015 and 2020, including a commitment to pushing ahead with developing common platforms such as the GOV.UK Verify identity assurance solution and GOV.UK Pay – currently in public beta and beta respectively.

Small quick wins on specific projects, yes, but not a strategy.

Why does this matter?

Digital has gotten a raw deal this year, be it the uncertainty of Brexit, the creeping authoritarianism of the UK surveillance state, or the fears on the other side of the Atlantic.

In the midst of all of that, two consecutive Conservative governments have treated digital as a bit of fun to kick around at Christmas.

In Diginomica’s coverage of the issue, Derek du Preez writes:

Whilst I was fairly critical of the Transformation Strategy in the form that we saw it, it has now been over a year since it was due. Yes, we have seen a shock in the EU referendum and yes we have a new government in charge – but neither of those things should really impact the changes required across the Civil Service and the public sector at large. And even if they did, can’t the strategy be updated accordingly?

That’s so true. But then again, maybe we’re all overanalysing things here.

Digital transformation, after all, is about being fast, responsive, and transparent.

No wonder Downing Street hates it so much.

About the author
Heather Burns is a digital law specialist in Glasgow, Scotland. She researches, writes, publishes, consults, and speaks extensively on internet laws and policies which affect the crafts of web design and development. She has been designing and developing web sites since 1997 and has been a professional web site designer since 2007. She holds a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. Learn about hiring Heather to write, speak, or consult.