The Science and Technology Committee has criticised the continued delays to the government’s long-promised digital strategy
Stephen Metcalfe, chair of parliament’s Science and Technology Committee, has issued the latest criticism of the government for the continued delays to its digital strategy, arguing that other projects – such as its approach to developing critical digital skills – depend upon the broader plan.
Metcalfe made his remarks in an open letter to digital minister Matt Hancock upon parliament’s publication of the government’s response to parliament’s digital skills report, and noted that that response, too, took an unusually long time to produce, coming six months after the report, instead of the usual two.
He said the government’s response was all the more inadequate because seven of the committee’s 27 recommendations explicitly addressed the strategy, which has still not been made public.
“Our disappointment over such a long delay is compounded by the continued absence of the government’s long-promised ‘digital strategy’ because much of the focus for our report was that digital strategy,” he wrote.
The response provides no information on how parliament’s recommendations about the strategy will be addressed, Metcalfe added.
“Indeed, without the strategy being published alongside the response it is difficult to see why the response could not have been produced within the usual two-month period,” he wrote.
Metcalfe pointed out that then digital economy minister Ed Vaizey said in March 2016 that the strategy was already written and only awaited a publication date, and the committee had hoped the delay was due, at least in part, to redrafting in response to its report – something that now appears not to have been the case.
“I would be grateful for your assessment of the reasons why the Response has taken so long to finalise and why the Strategy continues to be a work-in-progress nearly a year after your predecessor considered it already largely completed,” he wrote.
The strategy is intended to push digital transformation ahead by prioritising an overhaul of the civil service, including broad changes to back-office processes and systems and more collaboration, according to the government.
The strategy’s publication has been delayed several times since the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service (GDS) was awarded a £450 million budget in the November 2015 government spending review, most recently having been promised before Christmas.
Its delay is thought to be due in part to the necessity of taking into account last year’s EU referendum, as well as the subsequent change of prime minister and cabinet reshuffle.
GDS was formed in 2011 to spearhead the government’s 2010 digital initiatives, intended as a centralised institution capable of driving digital technologies and collaboration across departments, but the service has met with fierce resistance from the departments it is supposed to be leading.
For instance, the National Audit Office (NAO) said in October it would carry out a review of GDS following “senior management failures” in its interactions with Defra and the Rural Payments Agency (RPA).
Previous NAO reports had cited “inappropriate behaviour” by senior figures at GDS and the RPA as a significant factor in GDS’ withdrawal from a major RPA IT project, and said GDS did not provide the support Defra needed.
Other departments have also reportedly shown hostility to GDS’s involvement and attempts were made to reduce the service’s authority or break it up following last year’s cabinet reshuffle.
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