The opinion polls indicate that the next UK General Election will bring a new government. The last time we were here was back in 2008/9 when one of the hot topics was “Digital”.
Shadow Ministers spoke at events about the critical importance of digital, policy papers were published by think tanks and I, a member of an Irish Labour Party my family helped establish, found myself being consulted on the digital policy contents of the Conservative Party manifesto!
The incoming administration commissioned Martha Lane Fox to produce a report on the future of Public Sector digital and this led to the establishment of the Government Digital Service, the creation of GOV.UK, and an explosion of digitally enable change across the Public Sector. This all created a buzz of excitement which reached far beyond the Public Sector and well beyond the shores of the UK leaving some familiar service patterns in its wake.
And then like all revolutions the pace slowed and pioneers moved on.
And now digital skills, tools and approaches have become part of the normal way of doing business.
Passports, Self Assessment, Making Tax Digital, Council Tax, Lasting Power of Attorney…
The list of services which we now automatically expect to be online has grown dramatically as have our expectations that they will just work.
Behind the scenes departments and local authorities have built up skills and capability.
There is much better cross-organisation working on digital issues and a whole raft of informal networks have sprung up to share knowledge, experience and gummy bears.
We even have some backbone services like Notify which make it easy for public sector organisations to build and run digital services.
Channel shift, to use a term from 2010, has been achieved.
And now digital is business as usual. And the parties have all moved on to other topics.
There’s been a Fabians paper on access to digital but aside from that nobody in or around the parties seems to be talking about digital.
So it’s all done, no need for people to bang on about digital anymore?
Well, not quite. The issue is that the conversation around digital has switched to services and away from transformation.
It has become tamed and safe once more.
Service thinking is important and very powerful. But it is also bounded. It is reactive by nature, reacting to user needs, service demands and policy objectives.
That leaves a gap. And government like nature abhors a void.
This announcement from HM Treasury on Crypto would never have happened if there was true proactive engagement between policy and digital. Anyone with digital skills, experience and knowledge would tell you that crypto is an economic nonsense which diverts investment and encourages bad actors.
Similarly the Online Safety Bill has become a random assortment of ideas, good and bad, which will make it almost impossible to police or deliver the desired outcomes. I do not blame either the drafters nor MPs but rather the lack of an empowered central digital function who can set expectations and speak truth to power as necessary.
It feels like digital in central government has been contained. The inevitable consequence of all revolutions. Being a revolutionary is exhausting, thankless and unsustainable. You always end up with O’Leary in the grave.
So what now? Is the current direction of digital in the public sector the right one?
Well unless something happens it will become the right choice simply because it is the only choice.
That seems like a conversation someone should be having.