2014, Labour’s year of…Digital government

Chi Onwurah MP

This government has not hesitated to criticise both the ICT suppliers and the digital record of the last Labour government, claiming billions of pounds of savings by breaking up a ‘closed cartel’ of government suppliers.

It is to be hoped that the long-heralded disaster of the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) flagship universal credit project – where hundreds of millions of pounds of IT assets have been written off – has made some dent in their overweening arrogance.

And as the recent NAO report made clear,  far from opening up procurement to new innovative providers, it is this government’s favourite recipients of public monies who are benefiting. Serco’s public service contracts were worth £1.8 bn, including £611 million with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and £382 million with local government.

The truth is that the digital divide is growing. This government’s abandonment of Labour’s universal broadband pledge, mishandling of broadband rollout, and imposition of digital by default as a cost-cutting rather than service improvement programme, together with growing economic inequality and the rise of big data and the Cloud means there is a real risk of a large disenfranchised and disempowered underclass developing whilst the privileged enjoy greater freedom and transparency.

Labour has traditionally been tech friendly, from the white heat of technology fifty years ago to Blair’s promise of digital government by 2005 and the 2010 Digital Britain report which set out the comprehensive vision and policies this Government has so comprehensively failed to do.

But we did face real challenges in ICT procurement and project management, particularly in a centralised, integrated service delivery and ‘customer management’ approach. However, it is worth observing that the private sector is not immune to such challenges too.

Well, five years on the opportunities are different and the lessons learnt but the Tories’ cost stripping approach will not realise the democratising potential of digital.

Labour has historically championed the many against the few, technology has the power to entrench existing power relationships  or to redress them.

I believe that we are not even beginning to reap the positive benefits of the way in which technology can change our public services. Certainly, digital government has not even begun to disrupt power relationships.

The internet and big data should lead to more direct, horizontal as opposed to vertical, relationships that enable individuals to redress the balance of power with governments, big companies and institutions.

There are many areas in which service users can potentially harness their own data to help define and improve their service and others where data sharing can improve service experience.

In Newcastle we have just finished piloting Chain Reaction, an adult social care programme in which personal budgets are used not for individualised day care but shared activities – like a trip to the cinema – co-producing care based on sharing preferences and capabilities.

Right now, though, most people are experiencing what I call 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 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.

If we – government and industry – do not drive the positive power of technology than it will transform the relationship with government for the few but entrench the disadvantage of the many.

80 per cent of government interactions with the public take place with the bottom 25 per cent of society but only 15 per cent of people living in deprived areas have used a government online service or website in the last year, compared to 55 per cent nationally.

Digital government without digital inclusion is a return to a 18th century model of democracy within a narrow elite. We must ensure that technology drives power and data out to the frontline with the service user, not to great data stores. Indeed, I would question the basis of a Consumer Relationship Management (CRM) approach to public services, particularly when it comes to resolving the really difficult problems which is where the real challenge is.

Used properly, with proper concern for privacy, transparency and service design technology can be a powerful tool and reshape how government and citizens interact with each other. But we need to establish principles by which we operate. And we need to make sure that the public sector has the skills to be involved in that kind of design and procure the services people need.

Labour must engage with public services users, employees,  businesses, consumers, academics and institutions to develop a long-term digital strategy that works for the many, not the few.

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