Government Digital Strategy Has Lost Its Way, Digital Manifesto Meeting Hears

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Before the next election, the government will be hit with a tech manifesto warning it to stop developing bespoke tech

The British Government’s digital strategy has lost its way, according to a meeting organised by the Policy Exchange think tank, which plans to create a digital manifesto that will challenge all political parties to rethink their digital strategies before the next general election with the support of EMC.

Mark Thompson, lecturer in information systems at the Judge Cambridge Business School, told the meeting that despite the Conservative led-coalition’s ambitions to re-invent government IT, it had had ended up with a variation of the bad old systems.

Other contributors to the meeting, held at the Tech City headquarters of EMC subsidiary Pivotal, called for a government IT strategy that responded the industry, built from the bottom up, and made good use of citizens data.

mark thompson judge business school Government IT - by Peter Judge No more luxury bespoke IT

“The government has spent the last twenty years indulging itself building luxury bespoke IT systems,” said Thompson, pointing out that different departments built their own IT nests and became entrenched, leading to disasters such as the £11 billion NHS Programme for IT, where systems failed and were obsolete before they were delivered.

The Coalition’s digital strategy was supposed to end this “frenzied splurge” by demanding smaller contracts, shared services, open standards and re-usable technology, but Thompson claimed that the government became sidetracked on a mission to deliver shiny apps more quickly through Agile development.

He said that “Aggressive use of open standards,” along with the adoption of a consumer-oriented viewpoint were supposed to be the foundation of the strategy, combined with a commitment not to build anything if it could be re-used from elsewhere. However he lamented that instead of implementing this vision, departments have simply started using agile developments to carrying building their own apps, keeping the old fiefdoms, and “fundamentally failing to address the underlying issues”.

“Agile is nonsense without self-control,” he said, adding that government digital strategy is more political than technical, and breaking down those fiefdoms takes time because it means losing jobs and altering Government departments.

It’s political, not technical

“Technology has changed many things, but not politics,” added Eddie Copeland of Policy Exchange, a think tank which believes there a £33 billion of savings to be made through using technology better but complains that MPs do not understand technology and government departments are operating independently – even when they have the same technology goals.

The meeting heard that successes such as the DVLA car license system and HMRC’s tax filing system are eclipsed by failures such as NPfIT, and the emerging disaster of the Universal Credit system.

Julian David, CEO of techUK, the UK technology industry body, suggested that government IT should be built from the bottom up, rather than imposed from the top down, and said that the public sector is still responding too slowly to ideas from industry: “The G-Cloud was an industry proposal in 2009, but today it only carries £23 million of business.”

Good use of the government and citizens’ data will also be a main part of the Manifesto, said Peter Wells of the Labour Digital Government Review set up by the Shadow Cabinet Office.

“People trust the government with their data,” he said, before warning that the government has to work hard to keep that trust, as experiences such as the proposal showed.

“We’re barely scratching the surface of what we can do, for instance with analytics,” added James Petter, UK managing director of EMC.

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