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Labour's Digital Review: the emerging themes

Published 30 June 2014

Chi Onwurah MP details the three key talking points that have already emerged from the party's recent digital government review


Labour's Digital Government Review consultation closed to formal submissions on June 12th - but we've only just finished counting the contributions.

That's in part because of a late surge, but also because we wanted to be as flexible, indeed as agile, as possible in receiving submissions. So ultimately whether you emailed me or my office or an Advisory Board member, submitted via the website or our Tell Your Story survey, or simply attended one of the many events, unconferences and roundtables held around the country, your contribution will be under active consideration.

Judging by the number of submissions, as well as the trade press coverage, the consultation was a great success.

In terms of formal submissions we received a really wide range. As well as the survey response, there were 17 from professional bodies and specialists, 15 from telcos and systems integrators (SIs), eight from small tech providers, two from start ups, eight submissions from local authorities and organisations that are vital to our Community Infrastructure (such as the Post Office and the Carnegie Trust), three from think tanks, five from academics, five from other organisations and three from trade unions. Indeed the trade union submissions effectively cover over 300,000 civil servants or about three quarters of the current estimates of civil service staff.

And as well as the number, there is the quality. The large telcos and SIs might be expected to make lengthy, wide ranging submissions (and they did!) but we also have many interesting and detailed submissions from small businesses, interest groups and academics. That is an important part of the Review - we did not want to be 'captured' by those with the most money to write long reports. My experience working as Head of Telecoms Technology for Ofcom - where consultation submissions destroyed many a forest - made me very aware of that possibility. In the end, the interviews, roundtables, roadshows and debates we held in Westminster and beyond paid off and we have a very credible range of responses. These will all be made public, except where there is a specific request not to.

The next step is to summarise the submissions and present them to the Digital Advisory Board. They will then start detailed consideration of a long list of policy proposals which over the summer will be worked into a report we hope to publish at the Labour Party Conference. But already I can share with you emerging themes.

The first is digital inclusion. I think this is in part in response to this government's digital-as-cost-cutter-rather-than-citizen-enabler approach. A roundtable organised with Newcastle's Citizen Advice Bureau highlighted the real hardship this is causing - benefits claimants sanctioned because they can't jobsearch on-line, obliged to rely on foodbanks because they are digitally excluded.

We need to recognise the cost-saving potential of digital whilst also understanding that its transformative potential will only be realised if everyone is empowered to take advantage of it, with no-one left behind. And the emphasis on digital inclusion also has implications for civil service skills - local and national government employees on the front line need the skills to engage with citizens so they can co-create services with them. Strengthening government workers' digital skills and motivating them to motivate others is the only way the full potential of digital can be realised.

The second theme is around data and particularly the safe, secure, accountable and legitimate sharing of data in the public and private sector. This government's approach to data sharing is a mess. They were heavily criticised for their handling of health data in the project but then went on to make the same mistakes with HMRC data-sharing. Ed Miliband has said that people own their own data. The Advisory Board will be considering what this should mean in practice for Digital Government, whilst I am working with my colleagues in Shadow Business Information and Skills (BIS), Health and other departments to consider what it means more broadly.

The third big theme is IT procurement. We have received submissions on everything from supporting innovative SME solutions through the standardisation of interfaces and commodity software to civil service procurement skills. Despite trashing our record at every opportunity, this government has presided over big failures including Universal Credit, and last year's National Audit Office report showed that spend is still concentrated on a small number of very big companies.

Rachel Reeves' recent commitment to pausing Universal Credit roll out for six months so that we can openly and transparently assess the delivery was met by accusations of cosying up to the big SIs by one Tory commentator , the height of hypocrisy when the acknowledged centre of excellence for agile development, GDS, regularly halts contracts over £100m in order to ensure much needed scrutiny.

Despite the bickering and bluster, the top reasons for IT project failure in the public sector remain a lack of leadership and ownership and we need to ensure the next government learns from that if we are to realise the full vision and exciting potential that lies ahead for all of us.

Chi Onwurah is Shadow Cabinet Office minister and Labour MP for Newcastle Central

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