Smash a bottle of champagne over your computer screen, and feed your keyboard some cake – Gov.uk is one today. This, you’re probably aware, is the government website that herded various earlier government websites and other bits of information into one convenient, digital sheep-pen. It’s beaten the Shard and Louis Vuitton to design awards. It’s already saving taxpayers about £50 million a year.
But enough with the eulogies. I’ve written plenty of sympathetic words about this Government’s digital efforts before. To mark this occasion, I’d prefer to raise five quibbles and questions about Gov.uk and the wider agenda. It’s one year old now. It can take it.
- 1. It’s all a bit work in progress. Back in January of last year, the Government Digital Service did something that is usual practice in the tech world, but that is brave in the context of government: it released Gov.uk in unfinished, beta form. The idea was that the public could have a spin around and suggest improvements – and the thinking has been maintained ever since, with the site in a constant state of development. This is admirable in itself, but it does mean that there are frustrations coded into the programme. For instance, changing the address of your driving license – which I had to do recently – takes you from the clean, simple pages of Gov.uk to the orange hellfire of Directgov and its clunky registration system. One assumes that these kinks will be smoothed out – but the fact remains, they’re not at the moment.
- Where are all the fancy apps? When I spoke to the Government’s computer boffins back in 2010, one of things they were most excited about was the potential for people outside the state – you and I – to swarm all over their work and make it better. And so spread-sheets would become beautiful infographics. Complicated algorithms would become user-friendly apps. Some of this has happened, of course; not least thanks to the development of data journalism. But, at the moment, it still feels as though only David Cameron has proper, finger-tip access to what’s going on in Government. What’s served up on Gov.uk for the rest of us is often an unappealing data stew, which raises a question: should the Government do more to make its information more digestible? Perhaps it’s not their place to do so. But, as window-cleaner said, it ain’t perfectly transparent if it’s muddy.
- Who’s being left behind? Moving more government services online will, it’s said, save us time, effort and a collective £1.8 billion a year – which is great. But who is “us”, in this case? Despite the Government’s plans, and despite the promise of 4G, 4 million homes in the UK are still not connected to the internet. And an even more striking fact: of the 10 million people aged over 65 in Britain, 5.7 million have never used the web. For these folk, it’s the same old paper bureaucracy. Their needs oughtn’t be neglected just because the rest of us know the way around an iPad.
- Whitehall still doesn’t get computers… The Government Digital Service, based in the Cabinet Office, is an anomaly on Whitehall. Its staff wouldn’t be out of place in a Palo Alto think-pod. They know how to do things quick, cheap and effective. But as for the rest of Government, they’re not nearly so tech-savvy. There is still, as I’ve written before, an over-reliance on big outside contractors to make big unwieldy computer systems that very few civil servants or ministers have a clue about. And just when it’s all about to go wrong? Move the relevant bureaucrats on to other jobs, and replace them with ones who have never seen the contracts before. It’s a problem that Francis Maude is trying – with much success – to overcome, including by establishing the Major Projects Authority. But, to solve it for good, you suspect there will need to be a more comprehensive overhaul of the Civil Service than is currently planned for this Parliament.
- …so why not hand Whitehall over to the computer geeks? One insider I chatted with reckons that the Government Digital Service ought to be expanded and involved more closely with policy design and implementation. Or, as he put it, “the GDS could basically be Whitehall”. His thinking is that technology is becoming so important to policy – and to driving policy costs down – that the two can no longer be separated. “At the moment, a department thinks something up and, if they think it needs a computer behind it, they then call the techies. That’s all wrong.” He even suggests that there be a full Minister for Technology, roving across all the departments, to give the whole agenda an air – or even the actual quality – of primacy.
None of this is to belittle what the Coalition has already achieved when it comes to digital government. They inherited a state machinery that was practically steam-powered, and they’ve transformed it into something much more modern. In fact, it stands to be one of their most significant legacies, particularly if some of the growing pains I’ve mentioned above can be tranquilised. So all that’s left to say is: Happy Birthday, Gov.uk.