Autumn statement 2015: Osborne bets big on digital – but doesn’t give away much detail

george osborne 112015

New funding for GDS and digital transformation in Whitehall signals it has backing from the very top. But we need more information on how it will be spent - and how government plans to integrate new online platforms with legacy systems.

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Digital folk around Whitehall did a collective sigh of relief this week.

Not only did the Government Digital Service (GDS) budget get doubled, contrary to fears it would be slashed, but George Osborne promised to pour billions into digital transformation in government during his autumn statement on Wednesday.

At one point GDS’s budget was set to be reduced. Multiple Whitehall sources warned ComputerworldUK of plans to cut funding for digital projects, a threat that sparked the resignation of government digital chief Mike Bracken and a number of senior GDS staff in August.

It seems Osborne heeded those who warned such a move would be disastrous, signalling a lack of commitment to reforms just as they’d started to deliver savings (digital and tech transformation in Whitehall saved £1.7 billion last year, according to official figures).

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock is understood to have played a big part in helping to secure the funding, no doubt partly thanks to his close relationship with the chancellor (he used to be Osborne’s chief of staff). If so he is to be commended.

Since former big beast Francis Maude resigned there have been fears the digital agenda could drift and lack the necessary political backing, but the new funding indicates these worries may have been overblown.

Digital projects will get £1.8 billion over the next four years, of which £1.3 billion will go to HM Revenue & Customs to provide us all with online tax accounts for all by 2017.

The vast majority of the remaining sum will go to the Government Digital Service, which will see its budget increased from £58 million to £113 million a year.

This will pay for projects such as building a platform to allow us to pay online for any government service by 2020 called GOV.UK Pay.

It will also fund existing schemes such as GOV.UK Verify and work to improve internal civil service tech – plus other, as yet unspecified, cross-government platforms.

This extra money is a significant, unexpected announcement and one that has been warmly welcomed by numerous tech companies, civil servants and industry-watchers.

However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. While the money is most certainly welcome, the most important thing is how it’s spent. And we have very little detail on that so far.

There has been too much of a focus on service delivery and not enough discussion of how to modernise legacy systems, arguably one of the most significant challenges government digital transformation faces.

“Building to beta is fine to test, but a serious end-to-end consideration needs to be given to enterprise integration. You cannot simply “remove the legacy” or move a feature to ‘done’ and have no long term strategy for that feature,” as Suraj Kika, who set up digital service design agency Jadu, put it.

There were also a couple of glaring omissions from the chancellor’s statement: he had very little to say on broadband and no mention of improving digital in local government, a neglected but vitally important topic.

The funding is vitally important. But the next step is to ensure it is used wisely. We need more clarity on the future direction of digital in government post-election.

Daniel Thornton of thinktank Institute for Government put it succinctly: “I’m pleased the autumn statement signals momentum behind digital, but much remains to be clarified.”

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