Public sector IT will not be a deciding issue for many voters in this May’s general election.
But if used properly, better technology and online services has huge potential to save money and improve services.
It’s a topic Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah MP says she feels passionate about.
If the Labour party forms a government in May, Onwurah says .
That means ensuring everyone is online, rather than the existing 90 percent target for digital inclusion, which she says is “starting from a point of failure”.
“People have to be online before they can start using these great digital public services we’re developing, and equally before they can understand the value of their data," she says.
However Onwurah is less clear on how this great ambition will be achieved. She says it is impossible to direct from Whitehall and should instead be driven by local government and communities.
She says existing ad hoc digital inclusion schemes need to be “formalised”. Industry has a “big part to play” and “needs to step up to the plate” to help get more people online, she adds.
Data sharing rules
Labour has also promised to set up “ethical guidelines” for data sharing in the public sector. Onwurah says she “loves” the Estonian law that the state cannot ask you for the same information twice.
“Maybe we could have something like that: if you have consented to share your data, the state will never ask you for it twice.
“There are huge opportunities both in terms of cost savings and improving services. But we need a coherent framework, one that’s ethical and empowers people, and works in practice.”
However, Onwurah concedes there are “real challenges”.
“We’ve had thousands of years to decide what property ownership means – it means no one can break in, no one can steal your property- but we need to figure out what that means for data.”
Onwurah knows it is a topic that needs careful handling. She warns the public appetite for data sharing is at an all-time low, after the “horrendous” mismanagement of the care.data scheme.
“If you give people an easy way of opting out, people will be less inclined to use it because they know that power’s there. It’s when you make it difficult for people they worry about it.”
Labour would focus on “informed consent” and give people an easy way to opt out of data sharing schemes, she says.
What role for GDS?
Notably, Onwurah does not mention what role Labour would like to see the Government Digital Service to play in these schemes – if any.
Labour has taken a changeable stance on GDS since it was set up in 2011. Onwurah describes the unit’s work as “absolutely critical” and says it has done a “fantastic” job of attracting top tech talent into the public sector.
However she says “we’re still not in a position to say what form GDS would or should take under a Labour government”.
Onwurah has previously been critical of GDS, claiming it has alienated Whitehall departments and other parts of the public sector.
Her fellow shadow minister Lucy Powell recently slated Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude for failing to deliver the promised 25 redesigned digital exemplar services by last month’s deadline.
Despite these criticisms, Onwurah supports widening GDS’ work to the local sector – not through top-down schemes, but by setting up “local digital factories” to build and share software among councils.
A series of regional bodies might be the best option given “local authorities themselves are too small and central government too remote”, Onwurah suggests.
She won’t be drawn into providing further details, saying “we’re still discussing what that might mean in practice”.
But she says: “It’s not about a local GDS based out of Whitehall. I don’t think that would work. You need something rooted in communities but with support from central government.
“Council leaders say they want access to better skills and shared services, as there are huge cost pressures on them. But they don’t want to be told how to meet the needs of the people that have elected their authority. I think technology can square that circle because it can be local but still have standard interfaces.”
Onwurah is clear on the official target for SMEs to get 25 percent of Whitehall spending: Labour would scrap it.
She says the party does not want to have a specific percentage target for SME spending.
“They are always liable to be gamed, as has been done,” Onwurah says, referring to the government’s doubtable claim it is now spending 26 percent with SMEs, announced in February.
However Labour “wholeheartedly” supports the focus on encouraging more SMEs to bid for government work.
“I think SMEs bring innovation and they also support the local economy – there are lots of reasons why you want SMEs in there,” Onwurah says.
She says the party is keen to push further to do away with barriers to SMEs winning public sector businesses, for example by examining which frameworks help and which hinder SMEs.
“We’re looking very closely at the digital services framework and G-Cloud,” Onwurah adds.
Government as a Platform
Onwurah sounds genuinely enthusiastic about ‘Government as a Platform’: moving to common, shared technology platforms across government, with public services built on a shared core. GDS has promised it will work to make this aim a reality after the election.
Labour sees it as “a great opportunity in terms of architecture for IT reuse and shared systems”, she says.
But Onwurah can’t resist a dig at the outgoing administration. She claims Labour’s stance contrasts with the Conservative party’s view of Government as a Platform as an “ideological opportunity” to get government out of the way and increase the role of the market of public services.
She acknowledges there will be organisational and technical challenges. “You need an architecture that is not too centralising. But doesn’t mean that every one of the 433 local authorities should be all building their own bespoke solutions. They clearly have shared requirements,” Onwurah says.
Many of the plans under discussion rely on better mobile and broadband connectivity – so what is Labour’s plan for that?
Onwurah complains the government has failed to come up with “any kind of long-term vision” and stifled competition by handing all broadband delivery contracts to one company: BT.
She says shadow culture, media and sport ministers Chris Bryant and Helen Goodman are currently examining whether and how to make universal service commitment to broadband a legal obligation.
Onwurah adds: “We have better high speed coverage since 2010, but we still have areas that haven’t even got decent coverage. That’s really impacting businesses. We need consistency so that people can rely on it.
“Just as you expect to be able to get a glass of water, you should be able to expect to get decent coverage.”