The next government will be the most digital ever. But it will only be progressive if it’s a Labour government.
Labour’s history, our roots, are in the empowerment of people. All too often government is something done to the people. Digital government must not be like this.
I worked in ICT for 23 years before I entered parliament, mainly building new technology in the private sector. As director of product strategy for GTS – a startup with pan European ambitions – I spent a lot of time considering how technology in general and the internet in particular would turn product and service value chains upside down and make business models obsolete.
This is when I first came across concepts and phrases like ‘disintermediation’, ‘co-opitition’, ‘clicks and mortar’ and my own personal favourite: ‘in the internet gold rush you don’t want to be digging for gold but selling shovels’.
Very deep. Though hardly an ethical framework.
Fifteen years later some of those predictions are coming true. The high street is online and Brits are the most sophisticated online shoppers in the world. Music downloads are overtaking physical sales and the Guardian is becoming a global website with a paper attached. Google knows our every move and Facebook our every thought, or so it appears at times.
But government seems to be business as usual. There have been investments in technology, some have been less successful than others. But the relationship between government and the governed has not changed. The citizen value chain is still the same as it ever was. Sometimes, as my constituents sanctioned for not spending enough time job-hunting online have found, the impact of technology has been to disempower people.
Government Digital Service (GDS) have made major steps getting more data online and improving services like renewing your tax disc. But it has effectively ignored digital inclusion and local government with the result that some of the most vulnerable are losing out. And whilst people may have a choice of which broadband provider to use, if they can afford it, they are rarely involved in creating their own social care or bus network. That’s hardly power to the people.
So the challenge us in 2015 is to make digital government work better for everyone.
Demand for public services will not diminish, indeed there is likely to be greater demand for more customised and better-integrated services, which reflect the needs and capabilities of individual citizens and their communities.
And at the same time we need to maintain an iron discipline when it comes to public expenditure and to devolve power as close as possible to the citizen, not hoarding it all in Whitehall. How then can we square the circle of better services, more individual and local: which cost less?
Information and technology provide new ways of developing what Ed Miliband terms ‘people powered services’ produced by and for the people who use them. Government can learn much from the private sector on how to use technology to flatten relationships, disintermediate value chains and engage citizens in creating their own public sector ‘content’.
But not everything can be directly read across from the private sector – government is not some kind of premium citizen loyalty card, those who seek to harness technology in the quest for a smaller state forget that unlike the private sector, the state cannot choose its ‘market’. The right like to talk of technology delivering ‘government as a platform’ onto which the private sector puts all sorts of applications from social care to turning on your lamppost.
This is a small government or indeed no government argument which conveniently ignores the needs of the poor, the vulnerable, the disenfranchised in a society which remains very unequal.
So we need new and progressive ways of collaborating between local and national government, citizens and suppliers, public, private and third sectors. Today many are suffering what I term ‘digital discomfort’ – about the security services knowing who we are calling, Amazon telling us what we should be buying, our children being exposed to online porn, Google and Facebook recording our every move, or simply the onslaught of spam. Among my constituents, the fear of big data far outstrips understanding of the opportunities of open data.
That is a barrier to the ethical and innovative use of data to drive more progressive innovation. Our digital review of government is intended to make to give us policy options to enable an ethical and progressive technology revolution.
Used properly, with proper concern shown for privacy and service design technology can be a powerful tool and reshape how government and citizens interact with each other.