Piotr Brzezinski is Head of Digital Government at Policy Exchange.
Although modern technologies have completely transformed the private sector, much of Whitehall still operates in the Victorian-era, with outdated bureaucratic structures and antediluvian policies. There are some excellent examples of innovative public services, efficient IT procurement and tech-savvy policymaking, but they remain just that: isolated examples. The bulk of Whitehall has – to put it charitably – not taken advantage of the opportunities created by technology.
Today, however, the rumbling of a digital government revolution can be heard. The government’s open data programme – now led by the founder of Dr Foster’s, Tim Kelsey – has led to the publication of thousands of files previously buried in Whitehall. Martha Lane Fox and Mike Bracken are leading the development of innovative, digital-by-default public services. And a new generation of digitally aware civil servants and politicians are developing innovation-friendly policy reforms.
At Policy Exchange, we’ve launched a new Digital Government Unit – a first for a Westminster-based think tank – to help identify the opportunities and address the challenges of digital government. The dedicated, cross-departmental team will develop new ideas for how the government can make better use of technology, improve public services, and promote innovation.
Enabling people to access data and information more easily should enable people to have more control over their lives and say in how their communities are run. Technology is also crucial in delivering more for less: better use of data would help government identify problems and deliver cost-effective solutions; delivering public services digitally could transform cut costs and raise productivity. But effective digital government will also require addressing new challenges ranging from individual privacy to cyber-security – as highlighted by recent data-loss and online espionage scandals.
At the launch of the Digital Government Unit earlier this week, Francis Maude provided an exciting overview of the Government’s ambitions from broadband regulation and ICT reform to open data and cyber-security. On many of these issues the UK is at the forefront of innovative thinking and experimentation globally. As a result, however, there’s no natural, easy blueprint to follow; in most cases, this simply hasn’t been done before. Take, for example, the Right to Public Data; unlike the FOI Act, where the Government could learn from analogous laws elsewhere, there are few comparable models for a right to public data to build on.
That’s why I see this as an exciting field where Policy Exchange can make a valuable contribution, leading the debate, challenging long-standing bureaucratic assumptions and providing new evidence-based policy proposals. It’s time for Whitehall to join the 21st century.