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Government IT strategy: time for the celebrity treatment?

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On January 19th, the deafening sound of an opportunity being missed reverberated round Westminster but went largely unheard elsewhere.

For that was the day when the Government closed its consultation on new ideas from business and the public to drive Government digital strategy for the next five years.

The call for fresh thinking on digital strategy was a welcome one, since alongside Digital by Default and G-Cloud initiatives, it shows a potential way forward for ‘UK plc’.  Ministers know that getting people involved in shaping our services is essential. But this approach, and the wider task of driving ICT change in the public sector, requires a real change of emphasis.

Like many who are supporting or observing Government’s development of services, I believe that it needs to show greater ambition: for example, Government developers have put lot of craft into Gov.uk and the user interface but behind a pleasing front end, there still lurk some clunky, even outdated, paper-based processes.

Reform must tackle a risk-averse public sector mind-set: Government departments could be more radical – their data sources, for example, are not that large compared with those of the private sector.  IT companies have to innovate rapidly to meet emerging requirements, such as Safe Harbour, and Government bodies will increasingly need to do more of the same.

And, incidentally, the call for ideas does need to demonstrate a bit more empathy with Whitehall and outlying Government organisations: private firms certainly wouldn’t normally be expected to plan ahead for more than three years, so why should Whitehall departments?

However, as the Government’s digital strategy consultation demonstrated, as its own technology bloggers already admit, changing technology is relatively simple, but changing a whole culture is not.

What is needed more radical thinking: ideas that reward creativity and start to capture the public’s imagination. Here are a few ideas that I’ve been thinking about:

  • Why not ask Rohan Silva, who successfully brought politicians and the IT industry together at Silicon Roundabout, to do the same for the NHS or local government?
  • Why not allow UK technology firms and universities’ top talent to have more ‘job swap’ placements across Government departments and non-governmental bodies – everyone would share know-how and benefit
  • Give IT the ‘celebrity treatment’, with Stephen Fry appointed a Government digital czar - and make the call for new ideas to be delivered as a high profile event, or an annual competition
  • Ask large, mid-size and small firms alike to set up a Digital Lab - a programme for inspiring and sponsoring public sector innovation (in the same way that they signed up to common ‘specifications’ under the G-Cloud). This move alone could deliver greater innovation, nurture start-up firms to support the public sector and make costly apprenticeships more worthwhile for school leavers and employers alike.

Call it a nation-wide job swap, or an ideas shop, or a Digital Lab, this is far from being style and no substance; look at the innovation work already being done, albeit on a small scale, that could be better supported:

  • The NHS Innovation Accelerator programme is supporting healthcare innovations – why not extend its scope and bring in financial support from outside healthcare?
  • G-Cloud has passed £900 million in sales – other countries are keenly watching its progress. Why not make schools and colleges observers, or even, participants?
  • Some UK technology firms and interested NHS professionals run small-scale health ‘hack’ events – why not expand them and fund them more effectively.

Politicians accept that service users must play a more active role in shaping public services as notions of the citizen and the state change.  But ministers must start truly inspiring the creativity of citizens, technology firms and forward-looking public sector professionals alike, if they are to deliver change - and avoid the deafening silence of another promising but ultimately failed Government IT initiative.

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