With neither of the main parties securing a majority in the recent election, many pundits are predicting chaos and possibly even doom and gloom. They fear the impact of weakened leadership, limited unity and uncertainty at a time when we face a number of challenges – not least of which is Brexit, and the terms of Brexit.
Look back a few years and many of the same fears were expressed in 2010. Brexit wasn’t even a glimmer in David Cameron’s eye, but austerity was high on the agenda, and a massive challenge (Liam Byrne famously left a note for his successor at the Treasury “I’m afraid there is no money”).
Austerity, and the coalition galvanised one of the greatest revolutionary advances in government. Lord Maude of Horsham (Francis Maude) was able to use his five years as Minister for the Cabinet Office to drive the creation of the Government Digital Service, launch and champion G-Cloud and launch the GOV.UK website. Policies like ‘cloud first’ and ‘digital by default’ provided a focus and purpose that enabled the government to ramp up its digital capability and move workloads to the cloud – ultimately leading to the UK being recognised by the United Nations as the most digitally advanced government in the world.
This was a massive achievement by any measure – particularly when seen through the lens of the starting point. A locked down, moribund, mediocre and very costly government ICT market. Strong leadership, clear vision, central controls and Maude’s political backing was turning the tanker.
One of the casualties in the election was Ben Gummer, the Cabinet Office minister in charge of the digital transformation agenda in Whitehall. Gummer played a crucial role in drawing up the government’s recent Government Transformation Strategy, which he described as “the most ambitious programme of change of any government anywhere in the world”, and was also instrumental in drawing up the now infamous Conservative Manifesto, which pledged a £740m investment in the UK’s digital infrastructure, a “digital charter” and supported the sometimes controversial Verify programme.
Over the weekend it was announced that Damian Green will be replacing Ben Gummer and that Damian will also become First Secretary. Given the many commitments he has, – the focus on Brexit and the complexities of pruning down the Conservative Manifesto and slimming down the Queen’s speech – it is not yet clear how central the digital strategy will be in the next parliament and technology is not one of Green’s stated interests.
The Institute for Government recently called on the Government to create a digital minister role post-election, arguing that there has been a lack of digital leadership since Francis Maude left. Green should not under-estimate the challenges, and may do well to heed the IFG’s advice, if he is to deliver on the dual challenges of his party’s manifesto commitments, and the Government Transformation Strategy:
If the Conservative’s digital commitments, and the programme described by Gummer as “the most ambitious programme of change of any government anywhere in the world” is to reach its full potential we will need exceptional leadership and vision – at least equal to Maude’s – to navigate the “not invented here” and counter further uncertainties caused by the election, and its potential impact on government’s top priority: Brexit.