by Tom Watson
I find it difficult not to like Francis Maude. He’s affable, decent and thoughtful. Unlike many of his colleagues, he’s making a difference. It’s easy for Francis, though. He has a secret weapon. He has Martha Lane Fox. And, as every geek knows, Martha is the kindest, most charming revolutionary internet genius you can ever wish to meet. On top of that, she runs the best karaoke bar in all of London town.
This week, Francis, in customary fashion, chose not to steal too much of the limelight from Martha when they jointly launched her report into the future of government internet services. It’s possibly the second most radical policy initiative from the government so far – after transparent budgeting. It’s one of those policies that we should wholeheartedly endorse. We should even throw in a mea culpa for not doing it ourselves when we had the chance.
Martha recommended a series of sensible, pragmatic changes to the government’s web estate. Things like reform of www.direct.gov.uk – the most extensive and expensive of the government web sites. Essentially, she wants to make DirectGov the one stop shop for government transactions. So you want to pay your car tax, register to vote and submit your tax form? Go to one place rather than three.
You don’t go to three different web sites when you want to buy pants, bras and kitchen knick-knacks from Marks and Spencer dot com after all. So why should you with the government? Yet the government has so many web sites it has lost count of how many and where they are.
These changes sound simple. They kind of are when you think about them. But remember, it’s the UK civil service that has to deliver them. That why it’s so hard and complex to achieve. As a minister, I couldn’t get anywhere close to the kind of simple changes that make doing stuff with the government easier and more pleasant.
When, as I found out as a newly appointed cabinet office minister, responsibility for www.direct.gov.uk transferred from the cabinet office to bizarrely, the department for work and pensions, I tried to stop the change. Some faceless mandarin tried to smooth-talk me by offering regular reviews and updates on the radical reforms planned for the site by his crack IT team in the DWP.
I was so irritated with the brush off that I phoned James Purnell direct. I explained that I felt passionately about web stuff and wanted to make a difference in our digital policy. Would he consider allowing me to take a lead on the reform of DirectGov, I asked. There was the faintest quiver of joy in his otherwise monotone voice as James slowly explained that he didn’t think he could help me.
It’s fair to say that at the time I felt James had lost his revolutionary ardour. We modernisers were anxious for change, after all, and we weren’t prepared to let the slow coaches like James get in our way. Except that I lost. He won his willy-waving contest. I clung onto what was left of my dignity to resist a Walter Shoback moment. DirectGov remained unchanged for another two years.
During my time at the cabinet office, not a day went by where there wasn’t a Jim Hacker moment. “The problem with Google, minister” said the very high up IT man “is that it doesn’t find the pages we want people to read.” His solution was for the government to develop it’s own search algorithm in order to give citizens the information the government wanted them to find.
I tried to put a stop to it of course, though I was never confident they actually did.
I remember pushing departments to let their staff use facebook on the grounds that it enabled project teams to form really quickly and allow instant knowledge sharing – for free. The alternative plan was put to me, based on the Pentagon’s secure network. The government would build it’s very own secure network. Like Facebook but not facebook. All the functionality in whitehall’s walled garden.
Still, James Purnell’s loss is Francis Maude’s gain. Francis gets to revolutionise the government web estate in the way we should have done when in government. And Martha Lane Fox and the network of radical digital thinkers will help him deliver it.
Her report is very clear that you need the zeal of the vanguard to make the changes necessary. She says we need a “new central team in cabinet office in absolute control of the user experience across all digital channels”.
For, as Martha rightly points out, to achieve the changes required to make engaging with HMG online a simple, pleasurable experience requires a massive change in culture and technical expertise.
And Francis is also humble enough to know that he’s going to need the flair and talent of Britain’s best web people. He needs the A-team.
If I were Francis, I would draft in Lib Dem Lord, Richard Allan, of facebook to the team. I’d steal Tom Loosemore and Matt Lock from Channel 4. And I’d throw in that well know anarchist and inventor of www.theyworkforyou.com, Stefan Magdalinski. I’d demand that the BBC lend me Tony Ageh and Bill Thompson.
And to finish off the A-team, I’d persuade David Cameron to put Martha in the House of Lords. Make her the minister for digital engagement and let her run the team. My God, they’d change Britain for the better. Good luck to them. And well done Francis.
Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East and a former cabinet office minister.