Chi’s Speech to the Digital Leaders Conference 2013

This is the text of Chi’s speech to the Digital Leaders Conference on Wednesday, 4th December 2013. 


— Check against delivery–


Good Afternoon

It is a real pleasure to be here. I am very grateful to the Chancellor – for moving his Autumn statement to tomorrow just so that I could join you.

Well I think the Prime Minister’s movements might have been more of a factor than mine.

But I am happy for once to take advantage of his manoeuvring.

I wanted to join you because digital leadership is so important to the transformation of Government that we seek to achieve. Digital leadership is not a party political issue – we all believe it is a good thing – so I do not intend to make a party political speech.

Having worked in ICT for 23 years myself before entering parliament I like to take these opportunities to evangelise on the power of digital, for those not already converted to the cause.

And I will do that.

As well as sharing some of the insights my engineering background has given me.

But I do want to address the politicalisation of ICT by this Government – because it has important implications for digital leaders.

Certainly in the recent Policy Exchange report Smaller Better Faster Stronger  the Prime Minister’s former digital advisor Rohan Silva did his best to portray the public sector as an digitally backward captured client of  ICT oligarchs only now being reluctantly dragged into the 21st Century by free market forces.

This Government  has  not hesitated to criticise both the ICT suppliers and the digital services of the last Labour government, claiming to make billions of pounds of savings by breaking up a ‘closed cartel’ of government suppliers.

The long-heralded disaster of the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) flagship Universal Credit project – where hundreds of millions of pounds of IT assets have been written off – together with the NAO’s recent and trenchant criticism of their supplier management  has I hope made some dent in this overweening arrogance.

The truth is that the  digital divide is growing, this Government’s abandonment of Labour’s Universal Broadband pledge, mishandling of Broadband rollout, and imposition of digital by default as a cost cutting rather than service improvement programme, together with growing economic inequality, the cost of living crisis  and the rise of Big Data and Cloud means there is a real risk of a large disenfranchised and disempowered underclass developing whilst the privileged enjoy greater freedom and transparency. 

And we have no vision for digital Britain – the report that we delivered in the last year of our Government, Digital Britain, has yet to be superseded.

Labour has traditionally been technology friendly, from inventing the phrase ‘the white heat of technology’ fifty years ago to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s promise of digital Government by 2005 and the 2003 Communications Act which set out comprehensive vision and policies for a converged communications sector, something this Government has so comprehensively failed to do.

But we did face real challenges in ICT procurement and project management. Particularly in a centralised, integrated service delivery/customer management approach.  

It is worth observing that the private sector is not immune to such challenges too.

And, as the private sector can testify, the solution is not to be found  simply in moving from Waterfall to Agile. I do think that the politicalisation of an ICT project management methodology is farcical – and a demonstration that this Government does not get ICT.

That is not digital leadership.

So what is? What is Labour’s vision of Digital Government?

Well five years on the opportunities will be different and the lessons learnt but the Tories cost stripping approach will not realise the democratising potential.

Labour has historically championed the many against the few,  technology has the power to entrench existing power relationships  or to redress them.

I believe that we are not even beginning to reap the positive benefits of the way in which technology can change our public services.

Certainly, digital government has not even begun to disrupt power relationships.

The internet and big data should lead to more direct, horizontal as opposed to vertical, relationships that enable individuals to redress the balance of power with governments, big companies and institutions.

A good example of how data can empower is the social enterprise Patients Know Best, which enables patients to take control of their healthcare by giving access to medical records.

In social media “Gig Buddies” pairs up people with and without learning disabilities to be friends and to go to events together. This gives carers time off and provides people with more freedoms.

In Newcastle we have just finished piloting Chain Reaction, an adult social care  programme in which personal budgets are used not for individualised day care but shared activities – like a trip to the cinema – co-producing care based on sharing preferences and capabilities.

There are so many areas in which service users can harness their own data to help define and improve their service and yet more where data sharing can improve service experience.

Right now, though, most people are experiencing what I call digital discomfort—about the security services knowing who we are calling, Amazon telling us what we should be buying, our children being exposed to online porn, Google recording our every move, or simply the onslaught of spam. Among far too many of my constituents, the fear of digital outstrips understanding of the opportunities.

If we – government and industry – do not drive the positive power of technology than it will transform the relationship with Government for the few… but entrench the disadvantage of the many.

80% of government interactions with the public take place with the bottom 25% of society but only 15% of people living in deprived areas have used a government online service or website in the last year, compared to 55% nationally.

Digital Government without digital inclusion is a return to a late 18th Century model of democracy within a narrow elite.

We must ensure that technology drives power and data out to the frontline with the service user, not just to great data stores.

Indeed I would question the basis of a  Consumer Relationship Management (CRM) approach to public services particularly when it comes to resolving the really difficult problems which is where the real challenge is.

A  book recently published by three academics from Newcastle University – Digital Government @Work – argues that we need to know the nature, relationships and context of all the players before determining the appropriate identity and information governance. Only in this way the repeated polarisation between the ‘service state’ and the ‘surveillance state’ can be overcome.

This kind of federated managed network approach may be organisationally and technically challenging but also powerful in the opportunities for dramatic and disruptive government change it could unleash.

Because so far, despite all its promise, digital government has entrenched existing power relationships rather than disrupting them.

Used properly, with proper concern for privacy, transparency and service design, technology can be a powerful tool and reshape how government and citizens interact with each other.

But it cannot be imposed.

And whilst they must be evangelists, digital leaders must not see themselves as missionaries colonising the ignorant.

Whatever the question, technology is never the answer – on its own.

Technology only works in the context of the people and processes who work with it.

When it comes to technology there is definitely such a thing as society.

If we see digital as a way of stripping out costs and replacing people than we are doomed to failure – bad technology always costs more than good people.

If we see it as a way of simply shrinking the state then we leave the vulnerable more vulnerable.

We must see digital government as a way of empowering people – service users and public sector employees, citizens and consumers – and enabling cost reduction in the process.

We need to drive the power of digital out to the GP’s waiting room, the housing office, the school.

But it cannot be simply pushed out, there needs to be pull as well.

And we need to make sure that the public sector and users  have the skills to be involved in that kind of co- design and shared procurement of the services people need.

A tall order I agree

But rather than addressing these challenges ad hoc and reactively we need a framework for the relationship between the people and their data, Government and digital.  That is the debate we need to engage in.

Which is why I am pleased to announce today that Labour will be acting where this Government has so comprehensively failed, delivering a new vision of Britain’s Digital Government within an updated version of our Digital Britain report to be published before the next election.

Already we have a number of digital policy development streams including the recently announced independent review on digital skills led by Maggie Philben, whom I met with today.

Digital Britain 2015 will be the product of Labour’s engagement across departments with  businesses, consumers, academics and institutions to develop a long-term digital strategy that works for the many, not the few.

I look forward to working with you to implement it after the next election.

Now I have the privilege to make another announcement, one which chimes absolutely with my message of driving power out from the centre.

Digital Leaders Local will be beginning in the 9 English Regions in 2014

And the first of these will be Digital Leaders North East starting in January – this was not my doing but I am very, very pleased about it.

The bringing together of knowledgeable people from Business, Academia and local and central Government to discuss these regional issues is so important and I am reassured that  Digital Leaders recognise this, and the importance of the NE helping develop digital transformation strategies that will create more social and stronger economic cohesion between often disconnected local stakeholders.

It is encouraging but not surprising that the prospect of Digital Leaders North East has been very well received.

From talking to local stakeholders I know many in the North East understand  the importance of digital leadership, and indeed it was recently announced that we will soon have the first and only Doctoral Training Centre for Digital Civics at Newcastle University.

I look forward to taking part in a Digital Leaders north East salon in the not too distant future.

4 thoughts on “Chi’s Speech to the Digital Leaders Conference 2013

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