Westminster View: The Autumn Statement is a missed opportunity for Digital Government

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah believes that the government should have used the Autumn Statement to establish a digital strategy that drives change, rather than just a useful platform to make savings.

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Go to the text of the chancellor’s Autumn Statement Speech, search for digital and the only reference that comes up is that the site was built by Government Digital Services (GDS).

I wish I could say that is because digital is so integrated into this government it does not need to be explicitly mentioned, but in reality it is because they see digital as a useful platform for savings but not a key driver for change.

The speech was packed with things that mattered to the chancellor. Public service cuts, investment allowances, funding for the Centre for Innovation in Ageing in my constituency, the potential for materials science - the chancellor even claimed that science was a personal priority.

Not digital, even though it is a key economic sector in its own right, a platform for innovation across many sectors and an opportunity to transform the relationship between government and the people, as set out in our recently published Independent Review – Making Digital Government Work for Everyone.

Instead, Cabinet Office ministers published the paper “Efficiency and Reform in the next Parliament” alongside and separately to the Autumn Statement.

Running out of ideas?

Lots of digital here. Some of it I would support, or at least welcome as contributions to on-going debates. Although I wonder if ministers are running out of ideas, as many of the things inside seem to have been picked up from our review of digital government. Platform is mentioned; it’s taken Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude a while but he seems to have woken up to the fact that architecture is not a dirty word. And there is a commitment to open up ‘secure interfaces’ - the APIs - of digital services and ‘allow’ integration with other services.

But there is a lot that is of real concern, and I don’t just mean the political tub thumping all over the first few sections which makes you wonder if it was written by a civil servant or a spin doctor.

Digital inclusion is excluded, very clearly: "We want nine out of 10 of the online public to use our digital public services by 2020.”

So only 90 percent of those online matter to this government and there is nothing about getting more people online. Why did they not take the opportunity to make the economic case both for savings and for overall growth in the economy which digital inclusion presents? The Independent Review presented to me last week estimates that £6 billion in value could be realised by getting everyone online.

Digital for saving

There are a lot of mentions of ‘save’ and ‘saving’ – 56 to be precise in 27 pages. For example:

"In total, government estimates that Universal Credit will save £1.5 billion in benefit expenditure lost to fraud by 2023-24."

Yes, well government haven’t met a single target or prediction on Universal Credit yet so it is hard to have much confidence on this.

The paper is very weak on skills apart from leadership skills – that’s very important as our Independent Review emphasised, but we also need to bolster digital and technical skills throughout the public sector to give people the confidence to lead – and to be digital makers and doers! On the frontline, we want public servants to inspire citizens with the digital confidence and excitement necessary to enable them to take control of their own services. The independent Digital Government review recommended five days of training for every public sector worker and we will consider this along with all the other proposals as part of our zero based spending review process.

Another missed opportunity is on performance management, which our independent report highlights as enabling the transparency and scrutiny which will aid service transformation. The paper suggests "publishing performance scores for each appropriate digital government service showing user satisfaction with the overall service.” But how about the management information which would, for example, enable citizens to track just how the backlog in passports applications was building up before they made their own application?

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