Cabinet reshuffle – more disruption for digital government. Where’s the leadership?


Caroline Nokes has taken up a new position at the Home Office, which means, once again, the responsibility for digital government will fall on someone new.

Once again the political responsibility for digital government is left hanging in the air, as the Prime Minister continues her cabinet reshuffle this week.

Ministerial control of the Transformation Strategy, the digital agenda and the Government Digital Service will again likely fall at the hands of someone new, following a number of changes at the Cabinet Office in recent years.

The upheaval will inevitably raise questions about the consistency of leadership in the Cabinet Office for digital government, with ministers barely given any time to get to grips with their remit, before moving on to pastures new.

The last long-standing political force in the Cabinet Office, as it relates to digital, was Lord Francis Maude, who stepped down from his role as Minister in 2015, after driving the digital agenda for five years.

Prime Minister Theresa May announced yesterday, in the midst of a haphazard reshuffle, that Caroline Nokes, previously responsible for digital in her role as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Cabinet Office, would be moving to the Home Office to become Minister of State for Immigration.

Nokes has been in the role for just over six months and has only made one public appearance over the time, as she got to grips with the digital agenda.

diginomica/government has contacted the Cabinet Office to see who will take over her responsibilities, but we are told that we will have to wait for the reshuffle to be over later today before finding out about policy splits. It’s possible that it may be David Lidlington, who was appointed Cabinet Office Minister, but it seems he is taking on a broader role closer to the Prime Minister, so that may be less likely.

This will be the fourth political leadership change for the digital agenda in recent years – with Ben Gummer and Matt Hancock both overseeing it in previous roles, prior to Nokes taking over. It’s concerning that no minister has been given enough time to do anything substantial with the role, before either losing their seat or being taken to pastures new. Where is the required leadership for this complex and difficult agenda?

Over at DCMS

Meanwhile, over at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Matt Hancock MP has been promoted from Minister for Digital to Secretary of State for DCMS. We at diginomica/government have been somewhat critical of Hancock’s self-promotion, his willingness to pitch private companies on his Twitter feed and his lack of urgency on some digital issues, such as broadband service delivery improvement. However, other sources suggest he isn’t doing a bad job and is dedicated to the government’s digital ambitions.

Hancock kicked off his promotion last night attending London Fashion Week events, posting pictures of him mingling with celebrities, taking his new ‘culture’ remit very seriously.

I’ve been made aware that Hancock has previously thought that the digital and transformation strategies in the Cabinet Office, and GDS, should be brought over to DCMS – so he can assume the leadership role he had at the department previously.

However, whether DCMS would be the right place for GDS is questionable – its track record on delivering outcomes is considerably patchy.

That said, UK trade association, techUK, released a statement of support for Hancock’s new position, with CEO Julian David stating that he was looking forward to continue working with him. David said:

techUK congratulates Matt Hancock on his appointment. He has been a fantastic Minister for Digital and I welcome his continued presence in DCMS. His appointment comes at a critical time for the tech industry with GDPR coming into force later this year, a rapidly digitising economy and continued uncertainty over Brexit. I, and the whole of techUK, look forward to working with him on these and a host of other issues over the coming years.

I would also like to thank Karen Bradley for all her work as Secretary of State. She was always ready to listen and engage with the tech industry in a highly constructive way, and oversaw many vital pieces of work within the department.

While many other Cabinet Ministers have stayed in place, we also welcome David Liddington to the Cabinet Office and David Gauke to the Ministry of Justice as excellent appointments in vital Departments for UK tech. We also strongly support the greater recognition given to Social Care and Housing in the new Department for Health and Social Care and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Both are key domestic policy challenges, and both area areas in which tech will have a significant role to play as part of the solution.

My take

This is all very frustrating. There’s been mounting concern that the digital agenda in government has been lacking momentum over the past year, with GDS keeping a very low profile, and these constant leadership changes don’t help in the slightest. Digital change in government, combined with the Brexit nightmare, is going to be hard and it needs the political leadership in place to make that happen.

Why is digital not given Secretary of State status alongside other critical issues? We need a minister with the political know-how, gravitas and willingness to stick around and get the job done. Not for someone to be flown into the post every six months, to just about get to grips with what digital actually means for Whitehall, to then be moved on to something completely new.

We will update when we find out where responsibility for the agenda lies after the reshuffle finishes, but we can only hope that the continued disruption ends sometime soon – we need consistency and stability.

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