Digital is political

Governments govern. Oppositions oppose – or, more positively, present an alternative set of policies based on an alternative political perspective. Political initiatives taken by one government will be looked at critically by its potential successors, for the obvious reason that the decisions embodied in those initiatives will have been taken by people with different political goals, different political instincts and in a different political context.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that every decision taken by one government is overturned by the next. It does mean that new policies and new institutions created by one government are likely to be looked at closely by parties with the ambition to form the next government, and mere assertions of the virtues of those policies by third parties are unlikely to be persuasive. Some policies survive that scrutiny and go on to be part of the shared understanding of what governments do and how they do it. Others do not.

And that brings us to a little flurry of concern yesterday about a Computer Weekly article on a Labour party review of digital government, with a headline which proclaims

GDS becomes political as Labour launches digital government review

I am not interested, for this purpose, in whether the questions said to be covered in that review are good questions or whether the right assumptions are being made about what the best answers might be. What I am interested in about the article and some of the commentary round it is two points.

The first is the implication that a review by Labour politicises something which was previously apolitical. The second is that it is somehow illegitimate to question the government’s digital policy in general and GDS in particular. Behind them both is the idea that there is an objectively correct policy which, once found, should transcend politics. That matters not just because it is wrong – though it is (as I argued in much more detail in a post last year) – but because it sets up the wrong kind of argument.

GDS is a creature of the current government and is the result of decisions by its ministers. Those decisions were made in the context of a set of political views and priorities. That doesn’t make GDS itself a political organisation, it doesn’t mean that those who work there share the ideological framework of its political creators, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the only possible justification for what it does and how it does it is in terms of that ideological framework. But it does mean that the existence of GDS is and always has been political, in the same sense that every other policy and its implementation is political.

Should Labour come to power after the next election, the people in GDS will carry on implementing the policy of the government of the day, because that’s what civil servants do. That policy may be to continue on the current path. It may be to adjust it marginally – to prioritise the development of one service over another, for example. Or it may be to change the approach more radically, perhaps to the extent of changing what GDS does or dispensing with it altogether. Whatever it is, civil servants will do their best to make it happen, again because that’s what civil servants do. It’s not the job of anybody in GDS to express a preference between a government by – or the policies of – one party rather than another, so they won’t.

That doesn’t stop anybody else, of course, from attempting to persuade any party they choose of any policy they choose to advocate, including the policy of not changing the current policy. On the contrary, doing so is also a vital part of the political process.

The potential mistake is not in having a view that the Labour party should have a digital policy which is broadly a continuation of the policy of the present government.1 It is not even in having a view that policy continuity in this area itself has value. The mistake is in claiming that such a policy would somehow be less political than any other. It might be less politically contentious, but that isn’t at all the same thing.

“I want to take the politics out of this” is often a way of saying “I want to make it illegitimate to challenge the status quo”. Politics is the art of making public choices, and we do not make an issue less political by denying that there are choices involved.

Technology is not neutral. Service design is not neutral. Decisions about priorities and resources are not neutral. There are some important questions facing the future government – any future government – about where digital goes next. The decisions and priorities of 2015 (to say nothing of 2020) will not be those of 2010. The Computer Weekly article and commentary by Alex Blandford and Matthew Cain all make good points about what the issues are and how they should be thought about. There are debates to be had, and we all benefit if well-informed people take part in those debates and influence their direction.

But those debates are intrinsically political, because digital is political.

  1. Though I am not expressing an opinion myself one way or the other.

14 comments

  1. Thank you Stefan. You are absolutely right, of course. I’m pleased that I didn’t attempt to argue this coherently in my post because it would have looked foolish compared to yours.

    Arguing that something should be ‘apolitical’ – usually meaning above politics – does appear a particularly British trait.

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  3. This is bold and insightful blogging; thank you.
    I think there are some things that, while profoundly political, should also be uncontroversial because they are accepted as benefits by all mainstream parties.
    Getting value for money (ie more for less), better designed services which people find easier and more intuitive to use and a proper foundation of trust (technical and legal) should all fall into that category.
    Happily we’re also now in a position where “personal control over personal data” is also cross-party orthodoxy for Labour, Conservative and LibDems.
    The intriguing question to me is does Labour want less GDS, the same amount or more? What would be perverse would be to find Labour (traditional champion of public servants) supporting big outsourcers who employ large swathes of workers (in somebody’s constituency, presumably) overcharging government for poor quality work that a small number of elite civil servants could do far better in GDS.
    What many of us are waiting to see is whether Labour’s digital policy takes an anti-GDS stance (on basis it’s a misshapen creature of Tory thinking); a “steady as she goes” stance on GDS (ie “inevitable & desirable things go this way; good start even if not all perfect”) or we need more GDS: further faster better.
    The lobbyists from FujBMcenture, Cap-Atos-ita LockheedMcBAe etc are no doubt being paid substantial sums to persuade the next government to kill off GDS. Who wants to see a bunch of DIY officials driving down the cost of what they do, doing it far better in the process and making them look foolish, cumbersome and expensive?
    The key thing is to see the processes and services from the point of view of those they are intended to help: the individuals, the recipients of public servces, and the taxpayers who have to pay from them. Through that lens the radical answers become part of a broadly accepted political non-controversy.

  4. I too thought Stefan’s post was particularly apposite. Anyone who thinks government ICT and digital policy wasn’t already politicised should probably go and lie down in a dark room. It has been for years. The current government has positioned their other reforms as the antidote to alleged incompetence by Labour. Did anyone really expect Labour to simply accept this criticism without challenge?
    I’ve been both amused and surprised as the indignant outrage of those who have been alarmed at the mere launch of Labour’s review. The implication being that those who are outraged believe that everything about current policy and its implementation is beyond criticism. Much of what GDS has produced is of superlative quality, but it represents only a part of the government’s overall demand for ICT/digital services. And whilst they’ve been gearing up to deliver their programme, those of us whose companies developed and run the systems that currently pay benefits, collect tax, support the justice and education systems, assist the military, run the highways and public transport and the thousands of other functions that citizens rely on every day have been getting on with it. And while we’ve been doing that, we’ve been accused of being worthless, incompetent or outright criminal by some of those who now seem outraged.
    I’m not really sure what point William is making by asserting that the people who make up this industry are “workers in someone’s constituency”. Aren’t we all? I do know that they are almost all UK citizens, working in and all over the UK, in constituencies served by all parties. And to a very significant extent they are former civil servants whose transition into the private sector was the result of other policies, by other governments, at other times (yes, more politics!) They are people who regardless of their employer, are as dedicated to public service as those in the direct employ of the government. And when I talk to my colleagues who help keep the lights in on government, they really struggle to understand why a small number of vocal critics, often with no real history of public service and with little insight into their world have chosen to pillory them for their efforts. This doesn’t mean they don’t believe things need to change, but rather why the debate about that change has become so personal and divisive.
    Over the past few years this criticism has also been quite unpleasantly rained down on hugely credible, able and dedicated CIOs and other IT leaders who have been driven out of government and ridiculed – relegated as they were in Policy Exchange’s last report into Digital Government by one faceless critic as being “facilities managers with a Gartner subscription”.
    We operate in a converging industry, where “traditional IT” and “digital” people find themselves increasingly working on different ends of the same problem. Outside of government, this doesn’t seem to be remotely contentious and many of us in that “traditional” industry firmly believe that that the best outcomes would arise from us working together in government too. We don’t actually see ourselves as threatened by what our “digital” colleagues do, but see huge potential for collaboration and mutual learning. In the main, they don’t do what we do, and we don’t do what they do.
    This is not without precedent. Lastminute.com, the company founded by the patron saint of government digital, Martha Lane-Fox, did not operate in an entirely digital vacuum. It could only exist because of the network of legacy Global Distribution Systems (ironically “GDSs”) which underpin the travel and hospitality industry, and which have their roots in the “traditional” side of IT. The digital elements of our banks work on the same basis. Does anyone really think that it is going to be any different in government?
    Now there will no doubt be people who read the last paragraph, and claim that I “don’t get it”. That I’ve failed to comprehend the significance of what digital can mean to government. I don’t make any apologies for how I’ve framed the debate. What I most certainly do get is what government means to the people it serves. We will no doubt see a huge change in the impact of technology on democracy and public services in the coming years. But we need to take care not to break them in the process, because the consequences for those who rely on the services they provide are profound. It’s the food on their tables, their security and safety, their livelihoods and their lives that are impacted.
    Despite the outrage, I’m yet to actually see anyone from Labour, or indeed anyone significant from “my” industry criticise GDS for their work. The outrage appears to have been triggered by the mere suggestion that Labour, in conducting their review, might take input from a wider section of people than whose views have been politically acceptable over the past few years. Let’s not forget that we are talking about companies, who employ thousands of people in the UK, conduct their R&D in the UK, help educate people in the UK and represent a significant economic, intellectual and technical capability. And whose presence in the UK, yes, encouraged in part by government work, is still a net exporter of capability to the rest of the world. To suggest that politicians shouldn’t take their input would be an act of stunning political naivety.
    So it’s probably not a surprise that those companies will take the chance to contribute to Labour’s review. And if anyone else asks for their input, as they did in the run up to the last general election, I know that they’ll gladly provide it to them as well.
    Because we’re all citizens, taxpayers and users of public service too. And like our critics, we know that this is an important topic and a big challenge. The difference, I suspect, is that we think that it would be a waste for anyone who might usefully contribute to be left out in the cold. And we don’t mind this being a matter of debate, rather than a matter of dogma.
    I should probably close by identifying myself. I’m proud to work in HP’s public sector business. But I am writing here in a personal capacity. And after more than 25 years in the technology industry, on the customer and supplier side, having coded in Cobol and for the web, worked in the private sector and in government, and under governments of different colours, I think I have a right to do that.

  5. John hi
    I thought the point I made was obvious one but let me spell it out.
    If (to take a hypothetical example that is clearly not HP) DWP were to spend £400m with Accenture or Cap Gemini on a new welfare system this creates turnover and profit for industry and jobs, often UK-based. If GDS were to be able to create a viable alternative in house for tens of millions this creates fewer jobs, less turnover and less profit. Lobbyists for the supplier involved would still argue the political benefits of the big project even if the £400m system were to turn out to be not fit for purpose and to have to be discarded.
    Of course HP and other big capable companies should input to the review. But did it ever state, would you say, the true margins it made on its business with eg DWP over the last 15 years? I mean the figure presented internally in reporting to corporate HQ (not any other figure used for presentational purposes)? You talk dismissively of outrage, but there is real residual anger about the actual cost to taxpayers about big outsourced IT projects that were never designed (in any formal sense) to be much use on the receiving end. Truth is the best precursor to reconciliation.
    There’s clearly a tension for a diligent local MP with thousands of IT supplier jobs in their constituency who is now tackling the truly massive question of how to deliver digital government effectively.
    That, I believe, is the situation Chi Onwurah finds herself in. And I thought her introduction to this digital agenda process was nuanced and encouraging. She acknowledged the failings of overcentralisation of the past, made it clear that this is a review of digital government not of GDS, and that much that has been done by the administration she shadows has been good.
    I’d like to see a digital agenda which is about doing more for less better, not undoing the progress made in last four years. I was pretty much encouraged by Tuesday’s digital agenda launch event.

  6. The exchange in these comments reminds me of a conversation with none other than William some four years ago. The question we discussed over breakfast – and which I blogged about at the time was whether the difference between heavy duty back end and agile front end was still a valid one. I suspect that question still lacks a common answer.

  7. Sadly, notwithstanding its numerous plaudits won in the celestial sphere, we don’t all share the love for .GOV.UK. Content aimed at the general public is often disappointingly thin. The new departmental sites are a mess – navigation is miserable, search risible. If someone had pitched me https://www.gov.uk/DWP as a replacement for http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130107093842/http:/www.dwp.gov.uk/ I would have doubted their sanity – and mine.

    Nonetheless I think it would be a huge mistake to turn back the clock and dismantle the GDS (GDS of course being quite a bit more than .GOV.UK). Having something like GDS at the centre of government seems to me to be a self-evidently good thing. But it’s also evident that it could be improved. A review in good faith should be welcome.

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