The new Whitehall digital strategies


The new departmental digital strategies were published today, but have ministers spotted the elephant in the room?

You can see the new digital strategies here in all their glory. For those of you short on time, you can have a look at the summaries here. One of the things that stands out is the level of co-ordination from Cabinet Office – and the GDS on this. For me, this compares favourably with the previous administration where much of what I thought could and perhaps should have been done by Cabinet Office was done by Number 10. Despite my criticisms of some of the things Francis Maude has led, he seems to be getting this one right. Thus far. The proof will be A) in the improved delivery of public services and B) improvements in policy making of both process and outcomes.

Why didn’t Labour deliver on something like this?

From a party political perspective, could Blair and Brown have driven through something like this? Unlikely. (Well, they didn’t but here’s why). You get a sense for how important Cabinet Office was as a department of state by the number of reshuffles Labour had during its time in office. Have a look at the list. None of Maude’s Labour predecessors spent more than about 2 years in post. How can you have any sort of policy consistency and continuity when you have almost as many different leading ministers as they had years in office? By the time officials got a minister up-to-speed, it was reshuffle time again. Looking at the names, it is very clear that Minister for the Cabinet Office was a stepping stone to bigger departments of state.

“So Pooffles, let’s have an in-depth analysis of each strategy!”

Umm…no. For something like this, it takes someone with a detailed knowledge of both the department’s functions and of digital media to look at how each strategy will be implemented. It definitely is not ‘one size fits all’ because each department is responsible for different policies and services. How the DWP deals with the challenges of implementing its policies will not be the same as how DfT deals with motorists. The Department of Health is not going to be working the same way as it deals with, for example, providing sound advice to the public compared with say the Foreign Office on digital diplomacy. There will be some consistencies and similarities, true, but for example your Foreign Office audience is likely to be different to your DWP audience. For starters, a DWP audience is more likely to be financially dependent on the services it provides than the Foreign Office. However, the latter may have particular niche pressures – particularly in times of crisis abroad. How they handle such things won’t necessarily be the same.

So…what’s this elephant in the room?

It’s Action 14 – Policy teams will use digital tools and techniques to engage with and consult the public.

This was something David Willetts touched upon in a recent speech at the Institute of Government that I was at. The context of his remarks were around evidence-based policy-making. However, he said that the elected government of the day provided a philosophical framework from which policy makers working with evidence bases had to work within. The traditional (pre-1997) Labour vs Tory divide for example has been big state vs small state, greater state intervention vs less state intervention, nationalisation vs privatisation.

Things have become a little more complex since then. The old left-right spectrum for me is now obsolete – I prefer the Political Compass’ matrix. Across Puffles’ Twitter feed I see various examples of left wing liberal & libertarian comments as well as right wing liberal and libertarian comments. Things like this for me are about individuals’ disposition and general world view.

But what about the evidence?

Politicians of all parties need to ask themselves this question: To what extent are they prepared to be influenced in the decisions they take? I mentioned this in a previous article but in a party political context. This is in a governmental context. Ministers inevitably can choose who they want to meet with and who they want to ignore. A recent example was this one cited by one of my former trade unions, the PCS. I’m sure there were pressure groups under the previous administration that were sidelined by ministers at the time. Ultimately it is for ministers to decide who they and their officials meet with, and on the decisions they take.

At a digital level, the process of ‘opening up’ policy making is one I support. It allows for greater levels of scrutiny by a broader number of people. This was something I touched on in my analysis over a year ago on the impact of social media on Whitehall (the big analytical slide pack is at the end of that blogpost). For convenience, I’ve extracted two of the key slides covering Policy pre-Social Media and with social media which illustrate where Whitehall has come from and where it is moving towards.

Now, the policy buzz that hums around the various hives in social media world range from smoothing out the edges to outright hostility. The credibility of what is put out there also has a wide range, from extremely well-informed and thought through analysis, to knee-jerk reactions, to very deliberate misinformation. On the latter, I have seen examples from the left and the right on this. As Piotr Czerski wrote in We the web kidstoday’s workforce when using social media need to learn where to find credible information and feedback, how to identify and verify that it is credible and useable, and then know how to use it to feed into decision-making processes.

“What if my minister has pinned his or her political reputation to a flagship policy that either everyone hates or has a completely flawed base from the start – or both?”

Then…you’re in trouble. Actually, that is a very serious point. Ministers will have put a lot of effort and taken huge reputational risks with some flagship policies. What happens if the feedback says that the policy is flawed and the delivery of the policy is not working at all? (Think for example the Poll Tax – or even the Iraq war). What do you do then as a policy adviser or someone caught in the machine that is collecting, analysing and feeding in this otherwise very important information that is not being acted upon?

The reason why this is important – in particular for civil servants is outlined in the second half of my previous blogpost. See the section under “What’s Francis Maude up to?”

Francis Maude is looking to increase the visibility and accountability of senior civil servants. As I’ve said, not a bad thing, in particular those on six figure salaries. For me, a public profile is commensurate with such a high salary in the public sector. What makes me nervous is the temptation for ministers to blame civil servants for delivery failures when actually it was the policy that was flawed. Given the nature of party and Westminster politics, and the intense personal working relationships, who is more dispensable? Someone who you spent years with being politically active having finally made it to the pinnacle of politics with, or a “faceless bureaucrat” who is easily replaced by another? When was the last time we saw a major ministerial resignation where the individual minister concerned said they were resigning because of a specific failure of policy?

You’re not asking Mike Bracken and friends to deal with that, are you?

Of course not! (Mike‘s the head of the Government Digital Service). The points I’m making in this blogpost are aimed at politicians. The next question that follows for all political parties is when they will put together digital strategies for party policy making. ie will they give their own members a greater say in the development and scrutiny of party policy in the run up to the 2015 general elections? Twitter contacts in both Conservative and Labour parties often complain about the centralised and heavily controlled processes of party policy making – controlled by whichever clique is in the ascendency at the time. It goes against the grain of those at the top of political parties in recent years to relinquish such hard-won control. But do they have any alternative in an age where people expect to be able to talk back – and in a manner that can potentially go viral very quickly?

You’ve wandered away from the digital strategies – will they improve public services?

Well, that’s what I want to ask readers of this blog. I’m inviting you to pick a department that you are particularly interested in, have a read and let everyone know what you think of that department’s strategy. What do you like? What do you not like? Where do you see problems arising? What difference do you think the strategy will make? I will try to cascade the substantive responses that come back.



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