The best performing team in government is also one you’ve probably not heard of. It’s the Government Digital Service, who have been revolutionising central government’s use of the internet – providing the sort of excellent and reliable new systems that have countries round the world scrambling to copy them, whilst managing to hit timescales, keep to budgets and avoid bugs in a way that puts most government IT projects to shame. Better services and lower costs – it’s a winning combination that whoever is in power after 2015 will need to replicate on a grand scale.
Yet even within policy wonk circles based around SW1, the Government Digital Service (GDS) is frequently little more than a vaguely recognised acronym. It should be much more than that, for two major reasons.
First, for the insights it can offer for working out how to improve public services whilst saving money across the public sector more widely. I think there is much still to be learnt about what the GDS is getting right, but the early signs are that they do not fit into a neat, convenient pre-packaged set of ideas that fit one place on the political spectrum. For example, the GDS is doing things in-house, rather than contracting out to the private sector. Yet it is doing things in-house by paying high – even controversially high – salaries to get the most talented into its ranks. High pay and spurning privatisation? Both right and left wingers could take plenty of pot shots – or rather, could – if it weren’t for the record of success.
Second, the GDS is at heart about data and information – and power increasingly lies with information. Outside a mature democracy the balance of power between information and physical force is often a bloody, tragic struggle – witness events in the Middle East. Within democracies such as our own, power – both political and more widely – is increasingly only tangentially dependent on the ability to deploy physical power and instead increasingly dependent on data and information. Liberals of all stripes have always known this – and hence the party and its predecessors’ proud record of fighting to free up government information through local government changes and Freedom of Information legislation.
Even the physical presence of the police to block protesters is now often muted by the flow of photos and video footage broadcasting how the police are behaving out to the wider world. A police spokesperson rubbishing reports of police violence now has to face the evidence that floods around them.
So it’s great that the Social Liberal Forum have put on a session (which I’ve been invited to speak at) on the ownership of information at its July conference. If you haven’t yet registered to come, I hope you can and do.
The power of information should sit at the centre of our vision for a liberal society after 2015, so whether or not you can join that particular debate in person, do join the wider debate electronically!