Government transformation strategy snubs Parliamentary demands for clarity

Well that only took fourteen bloody months.

On 9 February the Cabinet Office released the much-delayed Government Digital Strategy, the roadmap for domestic digital transformation across Whitehall and beyond.

In Thick Of It style, the plan has been renamed the Government Transformation Strategy. True to that form, it is stuffed with so much aspirational buzzword babble that you may wonder if you’ve hit your head and woken up in 1999, like Ashes to Ashes with heavy lipliner.

To reiterate, this strategy is domestic. It is about how the wheels of government will turn behind the scenes, not about how digital strategy will work in the wider world.

However, this is no everyday strategy, and these are not normal times. Everyday domestic strategies are not quietly slipped in for consultation for three weeks over the Christmas break, brushed off with implausible excuses for over a year, and made the subject of demands for explanations and accountability from two different Parliamentary committees. Nor are domestic strategies made in the context of informing a civil service already burdened with a complex regulatory divorce.

So to me, there are three very different angles to this announcement.

How not to build support

The first is that the strategy was released in a surprise announcement at the annual conference of public sector think tank Reform. This was despite multiple Parliamentary demands, reiterated as recently as a fortnight ago, for clarity on the release date. Would it really have done any harm for Matt Hancock to inform the Science and Technology Committee, as well as the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, that there was a release date on the calendar? Why did he feel it was more important to give a private think tank a feather in their cap than to remain accountable to Parliament?

As for the location of the announcement, it is much like Theresa May announcing the Brexit strategy at Lancaster House rather than Whitehall. Downing Street, and the Cabinet, are quite clearly snubbing the very people they need to keep onside.

None of your digital business

The second angle to this announcement is that it ignores the questions that Parliament has repeatedly demanded answers to during the thirteen months that the strategy has been floating in the ether. Recall that the BEIS committee asked:

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.

Here is what the Government Transformation Strategy says about the referendum result:

Increasingly, government departments will need to collaborate across traditional organisational boundaries. The vote to leave the European Union has heightened the need to be responsive and to be able to adapt to a changing environment.

Following the vote to leave the European Union, the need for government and the wider public sector to be agile and responsive to a changed environment across (or sometimes redefining) existing departmental boundaries has become even more important.

Look, I’m a seasoned pro at leaving things until the last minute, but at least I make an effort. This strategy does not.

As for that list of specific negotiations for digital strategy post-Brexit, the list is not in the transformation strategy. It was only provided separately in the response to the BEIS committee. The strategy contains no further detail on those negotiations or the policies they are supposedly about.

Suffice to say I am so concerned by the systematic evasions here that I have personally met with my MP to discuss this issue and will be following up with her later today.

Collect it all, share it all, use it all

The third and final angle is what the strategy says about data, and the ways it will be moved around government, in the upcoming years. The strategy states (bold emphasis mine):

We will enable better use of data by addressing the technical, ethical and legal issues, specifically focusing on the following priorities:

  • making better use of data as an enabler for public services, particularly where those services cross organisational boundaries
  • removing barriers to effective data use by all parts of government through the data sharing provisions of the Digital Economy Bill, once it is passed by Parliament
  • make better use of data to improve decision making, by building and expanding data science and analytical capability across government, for analysts and non-analysts alike
  • managing and using data securely and appropriately, ensuring that public sector workers understand the ethics of data sharing – including what is and what is not permissible
  • building a national data infrastructure of registers (authoritative lists that are held once across government) and ensuring that they are secured appropriately
  • opening up government data where appropriate
  • continuing to open up government services internally and externally through the use of APIs where appropriate
  • improving data discovery tools for users both within and beyond government
  • transforming the way that government’s major repositories of data are stored and managed

The European General Data Protection Regulations are intended to be implemented across the UK by May 2018. These will change the standards and responses we must have in place to manage and protect the personal data of citizens. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) will work closely with the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) on implementation of these regulations.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Digital Economy Bill is an utter clusterfuck, the strategy has been written as if the law, and its provisions, have already been passed. That’s not how strategies work.

There are are also serious questions over what exactly the government hopes to achieve by better sharing of data across departments. “Finding homes in fuel poverty” is a feelgood cover story. Doing things like forcing GPs to submit data to the Home Office about patients whose immigration status may be in question is the reality. As Ars Technica put it:

…while the cabinet office has privately been promising to make amendments to the highly controversial clause 30 of the Digital Economy Bill on data sharing—which has been described by a House of Lords committee as a big push from Whitehall for “untrammelled powers”—realistically, there isn’t any time left for a rewrite.

Returning to the strategy, however, Brits are encouraged by the government to believe its pledge that it “remains opposed to national ID cards, and has no plans to create a national identity database.” In effect, it is saying to citizens “trust us, we’ll do right by you” even though it has failed to offer up legal and technical safeguards on the face of the Digital Economy Bill.

As for GDPR, the confirmation that its implementation will be handled by DCMS is a positive step, inasmuch as it is the most clarity we have seen from the whole strategy. This transformation strategy, however, is for 2017-2020. Is 2020, then, an indication of when a post-Brexit UK may move to diverge from the European data protection system towards a US-style, self-regulatory, commoditised data protection stance?

None of these concerns, incidentally, are a reflection on the work of the Government Digital Team, whose energies remain a vital inspiration to the industry as a whole. This is not about the indians. It’s about the chiefs.