Election 2015: Too many tech failures for the incumbent to win?
Progress report: The UK government's digital ambitions
Technology is often a sore subject for politicians in the UK. Whilst modern IT provides the opportunity for governments to transform service delivery, to introduce multi-million pound savings and to better citizen interaction with the state, in years gone by it has more often than not proved to be somewhat of a poisoned chalice.
Time and time again Ministers have laid out plans for transformative programmes that have promised to not only save money, but improve the way government delivers a service. These have then later resulted in systems that aren't up to scratch and for millions of pounds of taxpayers' money to have been wasted. The worst example of this in recent years being the National Health Service's National Programme for IT, a 10 billion 'transformation' project that has since been abandoned, but is still seeing hundreds of millions of pounds paid out to under-performing suppliers.
The next Government will be the most digital government ever whatever its colour but only Labour will make it a digital government for everyone, so we can reap the full rewards of digital, both in terms of cost savings and service improvement.
With public confidence at an all-time low, but with austerity measures forcing cost savings, in 2012 Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude laid out his ambitions to do things differently under the recently formed coalition government, with the launch of Whitehall's first digital strategy. Not only did the digital strategy promise 1.7 billion in savings a year beyond 2015 through the transformation of some of government's most heavily used transactions into innovative, online digital products but it marked a turning point for the way central government was going to deliver services.
No longer would central departments outsource all of their IT capabilities as part of multi-year, multi-million pound contracts, but instead the newly formed Government Digital Service (GDS) would work to figure out ways in which departments can build up their internal digital capabilities, work in a more agile way and shift from solely dealing with some of the industry's largest suppliers to introducing more SMEs into the supply chain.
Since then, we have seen much change. GDS has grown both in size and influence, with it successfully launching the GOV.UK platform and so far delivering on its promise to 'digitise' some of the most heavily used transactions in government, with seven of the 25 transactions already live, 15 in beta and three in alpha at the time of writing. The Cabinet Office has also already announced more than 700 million worth of technology savings in the past two years and has introduced a number of reforms to modernise IT contracts and introduce smaller suppliers into Whitehall supply chains.
Some of these reforms have included innovative contract renegotiations, which saw government persuading the likes of Microsoft and SAP that it should be seen as one large buyer, instead of a number of fragmented departments and agencies, bringing in savings via economies of scale. It has also introduced new frameworks, such as the G-Cloud, which put small and large suppliers side by side for departments to transparently compare capabilities and price.
However, despite these successes, the Cabinet Office's digital government has now been in place for two years and some problems have begun to emerge. For example, despite initial promises that no government department would re-enter a huge multi-year outsourcing deal, and that any new procurement would have to be broken up and be worth 100 million or less, Chief Technology Officer Liam Maxwell appears to be backtracking on his commitments as the deadlines for some of the larger outsourcing contracts near. HMRC's multi-billion pound Aspire contract being a prime example, where Maxwell recently said that if there was a "reasonable and strong case to do so", the ten year deal could be extended.
Not only this, but GDS has faced a recent bout of criticism for not maintaining momentum behind the flagship G-Cloud programme, after it emerged that there was little awareness of it amongst IT buyers outside of central government, and the Department for Work and Pension's multi-billion Universal Credit programme looks on the brink of disaster after tens of millions of pounds worth of software has already been written off and a number of damning reports have revealed problems with the technology.
With the general election now only months away, other political parties are now also recognising the importance of making digital a focal point in their campaigns and manifestos. Labour's Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, has been particularly vocal about the current government's shortcomings and is shortly due to release her party's review into digital government.
Onwurah's main concern is ensuring that the next Parliament delivers on digital access for all something she claims the Cabinet Office has not made a priority. Onwurah explains to ITPro that a Labour government will be a digitally inclusive government.