I’ve listened a lot of Assembly evidence sessions in my time. For the good of my health, I’ve cut down from five a week to just the odd one here and there.
Last Monday, I watched the Public Accounts Committee session on the Challenges of Digitalisation for the Welsh Government. I was quite happy to do this. I am fascinated by digitalisation in government and I love a challenge.
But, dear reader, I was disappointed by what I heard when Shan Morgan, the Permanent Secretary of the Welsh Government, and Caren Fullerton, Chief Digital Officer, appeared before AMs to discuss their Digital Action Plan 2017–2020.
Prior to appearing before AMs, the witnesses had submitted a four page letter outlining the aforementioned challenges of digitalisation. The letter recognises that there is much work to do but claims that the Welsh Government has moved from two to four on a five-point Digital Capability Scale. Following questions from AMs, it later emerged that the Welsh Government had awarded itself this classification and this has not been independently verified.
The witnesses touched on reducing the number of active websites and improving cyber-security.
There was a discussion on how the separation of NHS Wales Informatics Service – the largest digital service in the Welsh public sector – from the Office of the Chief Digital Officer was definitely not a silo.
But by far, the most detail was reserved for discussion of Welsh Government training targets, recruitment and apprenticeships. The Digital Action Plan was not actually a plan of action as to what the Welsh Government would do to realise its digital ambition but a document intended to ‘enthuse civil servants’.
This focus on digital skills of civil servants as opposed to wider possibilities prompted Lee Waters, AM for Llanelli, to exasperatedly declare: ‘digital is not just can you type with two fingers’.
Therein lies the problem. The Welsh Government’s digital focus is internal. Instead of looking around to see what can be done, they appear to be looking inward and saying what cannot.
This is further demonstrated in the posts on the Chief Digital Officer’s blog. There are no bold projects discussed. Nothing transformational. Little talk of collaboration beyond Welsh Government agencies.
The strategy document points to a Digital and Data Group which is chaired by the Minister for Science and Skills and ‘made up of digital champions from across Welsh Government who have responsibility for providing strong visionary leadership around digital’.
The strategy document also sets out a definition of digital leadership: ‘Leadership means setting the direction and leading by example. It means being an exemplar and inspiring others through your actions. Digital leadership is about showing people what digital can achieve and opening their eyes to the case for change. It is being confident and empowering those around you.’
I was struck during the evidence session that neither the Chief Digital Officer nor the Permanent Secretary appeared enthusiastic or confident talking about what could be achieved through digital first government.
The aspiration and delivery don’t seem to match up and I think this can be attributed partly to the inward focus of those charged with leading the digital agenda.
This is at odds with the Welsh Government’s support for digital industries in Wales. Cardiff is emerging as a UK centre for digital and the Welsh Government is helping to drive this. There are some talented people doing some exciting things – many of them working to make society better. Why not boost this sector further and develop some excellent solutions to Wales’s problems by working with them to develop projects?
Yes to a Digital and Data Group to offer guidance but let’s mix that up with individuals outside government.
I think there should be a Chief Digital Officer but I question whether that person should be recruited from within the civil service.
Let’s compare digital to finance here. Anyone working in senior management needs to have a grasp of it, but you’d want your Chief Finance Officer to be a chartered accountant with years of financial experience at the very least. (Credit to David Jones for this very apt metaphor.)
I’d like the Welsh Government to observe what the UK Government did under David Cameron and appoint someone with that experience from outside Government to spearhead a transition to truly digital first government.
Someone who will push for what can be done, not point to many reasons why it cannot.
Look outward. Find an innovator. Find someone who will lead from the front and find great people to back them up.
Forget about training and silos and metrics for now.
Find a vision and a visionary.
The enthusiasm will follow.
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