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.