Britain’s digital future - Canadian Government Executive
ICT
April 7, 2015

Britain’s digital future

On May 7, British voters will cast ballots and decide the fate of the current Coalition Government comprising Prime Minister Cameron’s Conservative Party and the more centrist-leaning Liberal Democrats. Their five-year partnership has shown that minority government need not be synonymous with instability.

Irrespective of who takes power, the odds are good that digital reforms will be high on the agenda. Such expectations stem partly from what’s already in place, namely an ambitious effort known as Government Digital Service (GDS). Among other initiatives, the strategy emphasizes a “digital by default” mentality with respect to service while in parallel, “assisted digital” aims to provide support and incentives to those not yet online.

The Coalition Government has also championed open data – funding the creation of the London-based Open Data Institute in order to solidify the U.K.’s global stature in this realm. In addition, Cameron’s team co-founded the D-5, a global alliance of five countries committed to cooperatively accelerating digital government reforms.

Undoubtedly, these and other reforms have led to imperfect outcomes but they have been good enough to garner at least a partial endorsement from the opposition Labour Party. In 2014, Labour launched its own Digital Government Review, an independent task force comprised of various experts and stakeholders forged to help shape Labour’s own digital agenda.

The resulting report, Making Digital Government Work for Everyone (readily available online), provides a sweeping review of what the present government has done well and where it has fallen short. The report notes, for example, that “over the last four years, the current government has spent significant time, money and effort building a centre of excellence for this digital transformation, GDS.” If further characterizes GDS as a “fantastic delivery machine.”

Nonetheless, the report also characterizes the effort thus far as overly Whitehall-centric in emphasizing narrow efficiencies from core services rather than a more holistic vision centred on people and communities. The following assessment denotes the inflection point that the 2015 election brings: “By over-stating success and under-estimating how much is left to do across the public sector, government risks derailing the progress that has been made.”

The first recommendation of this task force thereby calls for Cabinet-level leadership to shepherd an enlarged digital transformation, enjoining a senior minister with various Secretaries of State charged with driving reforms within and across key departments. Such a call is not unlike Australia’s Coalition Government where a senior Cabinet minister (and junior Party leader) has been similarly entrusted with such responsibilities.

Perhaps prodded by such viewpoints, a committee of the U.K.’s House of Lords recently added its own voice: Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future endorses the notion of a Digital Minister to oversee both digital government reforms and inter-related investments in skills development and education. The report estimates that some 35 percent of U.K. jobs are at risk of automation and that “the U.K. must aim to be a global digital leader, and only clear leadership from the government will get us there.”

Whether such ideas gain any traction in the months and years ahead depends partly upon: what Parties have to offer, whether the public listens, and who votes. As in most all western democracies, Britain is struggling with declining voter turnout rates and growing dissatisfaction with traditional political institutions.

In response, the Speaker of the British Parliament launched a Digital Democracy Commission that made its own findings public in January of this year. The final report calls upon Parliament to become fully digital and interactive by 2020, while challenging a newly elected (post-election) House of Commons in 2015 to immediately create a virtual forum for public participation. It also calls for the implementation of secure online voting as an option for all voters by the end of the decade.

Taken together, these various facets of political debate, coupled with and built upon many of the reforms already undertaken, suggest a much higher level of digital literacy amongst the British political class than is the case in Canada. Hopefully, our own federal election this fall will mark a turning point in this regard – providing a sorely needed digital impetus here at home.

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