Labour has issued its strongest signal yet that it would keep the Government Digital Service (GDS) if the party forms the next government.
Shadow Cabinet minister Chi Onwurah has previously criticised the unit for alienating staff in Whitehall departments and being too hostile to large IT suppliers, leading to concerns within the digital government community over GDS’ position if Labour comes to power next year.
However, speaking at Google Campus at the launch of Policy Exchange’s ‘Tech Manifesto’, Onwurah struck a more upbeat tone.
She said: “We need the work that GDS is doing, we will build on the work that GDS is doing, and if GDS didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent something very like them.”
GDS was set up in 2011 with a remit to transform government online services and improve the way government buys IT.
Labour is currently conducting a ‘digital government review’ which will inform the party’s manifesto ahead of next year’s general election. Submissions to the review closed last week and it will be discussed at Labour’s national policy forum next month.
Onwurah cautioned that the review has not concluded yet, but said that the skills and approach taken by GDS will continue to be needed beyond the next election.
She said: “Now, I haven’t finished the review…but certainly in terms of having that skillset, there’s so much transformation going to be needed because the next government should be a digital government, that those skills and that kind of approach of excellence will certainly be required.”
'The public sector cannot choose its market'
However, Onwurah criticised the current government’s approach as failing to sufficiently address the issue of digital exclusion.
She said: “One of the key differences between the public and the private sector…is that the public sector cannot choose its market. The public sector is 100 percent. It needs to be for everybody.”
Onwurah added: “I believe that being a citizen in the future requires digital skills just as being a citizen now requires the ability to read and write to engage. So I don’t believe it’s possible to put too much emphasis on digital inclusion. Because digital government without digital inclusion is a return to an 18th century model of democracy amongst a small elite.
“That doesn’t mean that services don’t need to be good, even excellent. But most of the cost in public services are not the sort of things like renewing your driving licence; they’re the really complex services which are more interacted with by the most vulnerable part of the population.”
Writing in ComputerworldUK last year, Onwurah warned that of the 11 million UK citizens who do not use the internet, four million are the most socially and economically disadvantaged.
She added: “Eighty percent of government interactions with the public are with the bottom 25 percent”.