The Government’s Digital Transformation Strategy: putting the cart before the horse.

Big Brother Watch Team / February 10, 2017

The Government has finally published its digital strategy.

The Government Transformation Strategy sets out some shiny plans for “how the government will harness digital technologies, skills and tools to transform public services and put the citizen first.”

The Ministerial foreword highlights some interesting realisations that “citizens feel that they live at the convenience of the state”; whilst the Strategy itself notes that “more power” over their data should be placed “in the hands of the citizen”.

Taken at face value we applaud this approach, much of the language matches the principles we have been calling for. There’s plenty of chat about security, citizen power, improved systems and an acknowledgment that “digital can no long be a ‘bolt-on’”. But for every glowing suggestion about how government will handle data there are some ideas which are notably vague, and concepts which if mishandled or poorly implemented have the potential to create a database state via the backdoor.

For example, there is little detail about what security measures would be baked into the systems. The language about citizen control, whilst positive sounding, makes no reference to consent. We appreciate the mention of privacy but no detail on what is meant by it. Worryingly, there is reference to “predictive analytics” which pose some very serious questions about profiling, algorithms and big data.

But these concerns aside, what is most surprising about the publication of the Strategy is the timing.

Not only is it a year late, but it comes a full seven months after the Digital Economy Bill was laid before Parliament and at the end of the week which saw the Bill pass its Committee Stage in the House of Lords.

This is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse and reveals that there are serious problems of communication across Government.

That the Strategy has been published by the Cabinet Office, the department responsible for much of Part 5 of the Digital Economy Bill is almost laughable because much of what is outlined in this Strategy is a long list of proposals which the Digital Economy Bill is either flagrantly ignoring or blatantly dismissing.

For example, the Strategy acknowledges that many government departments are woefully unprepared for digital transformation and that many services “need to be overhauled so that they live up to expectations”. This acknowledgement matches the concerns of the National Audit Office, Public Accounts Committee and the House of Lords yet the Digital Economy Bill’s central premise is for the ability to share data across all departments to be made far easier, regardless of whether the departments capacity to do so is ready or not.

The Strategy also suggests that the intention is to “make it easier for citizens to view and if necessary correct data about them” but during a Public Bill Committee session on the Digital Economy Bill Chris Skidmore MP indicated that permitting citizens the right to amend their data would run the risk of increasing fraud.

Finally the Strategy states very clearly, that “more power” should be put “in the hands of citizens”. However the Digital Economy Bill places all control over our information in the hands of the Minister in a move which the Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee report described as “inappropriate” by granting Ministers “almost untrammelled powers”.

These three examples reveal a clear sense of Government simply not talking or listening to itself.

Some very welcome suggestions are revealed in this Strategy, it’s not perfect but it goes further in acknowledging that there are some very serious, endemic problems across government departments with antiquated systems which need to be resolved before real transformation can happen. The time frame given is almost too tight to mention, but the intention to improve the systems and to improve the engagement with the citizen is evident. Which just leaves us wondering why on earth was it not published a year ago? Why has it arrived when the Digital Economy Bill is so far advanced? And why is one part of the Cabinet Office clearly not talking to the other?

Part 5 of the Digital Economy Bill is poor. It is badly drafted, lacks detail and will place the finer detail in codes of practice which can be changed at any time.

The Government could have saved itself a great deal of criticism had it published this Strategy a year ago. Instead we find ourselves facing a Bill becoming law which will do nothing to address the concerns or opportunities outlined in the Strategy and which will potentially remove us further from our data at a time when our data is becoming ever more a facet of who we are.