Civil servants 'Sir Humphrey' their way through grilling on UK.gov's digital transformation

MPs ask for specifics, get evasive umming and erring

British civil servants and ministers have been slammed for a "Sir Humphrey"* performance when grilled by MPs on differences in attitudes to tech across government and progress moving off legacy systems.

The Whitehall officials running departments and agencies at the centre of efforts to boost digitisation, along with their political bosses, were yesterday quizzed by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

The MPs are trying to get to the bottom of the government's progress towards becoming 'truly digital', rather than just sticking a fancy front end on processes that are often manual. They've so far taken evidence from the founders of the Government Digital Service (GDS), industry and various Whitehall tech-watchers.

In yesterday's session, which is the last of the digital government inquiry, the MPs put some of the concerns raised throughout its probe to the people who are meant to be running the show.

Among these concerns are that efforts to reduce vendor lock-in and bring IT in-house, kicked off by Francis Maude in 2011, have lost momentum – and that progress in ripping and replacing outdated kit risks grinding to a halt, with some departments falling further behind and GDS being increasingly sidelined.

The MPs repeatedly emphasised it was their duty to hold the government, its policies and actions to account, and that in order to produce an accurate final report with useful recommendations they needed more information. But when asked about problem areas and digital laggards, civil servants seemed unable or unwilling to give specifics or name names.

"You've just given us bland, general answers," Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton Graham Stringer told Matthew Gould, director-general for digital policy at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). "Can you give examples of where you've met resistance... in the real world?"

In this line of questioning, MPs hoped to unpick whether DCMS should be given stronger powers to enforce digital policy in government, rather than acting in a more advisory capacity. Similar questions were asked of GDS.

But Gould stuck to the generic line that where different departments had different views, "we've been able to forge a way forward," and declined to offer up any more detail.

No need for you to get involved in any specifics, chaps

It was the same story for GDS boss Kevin Cunnington, who was asked by committee chair Norman Lamb if any departments were ignoring the central agency and going it alone, and whether they all made use of GDS's resources effectively. "In general, there's a very collegiate environment across government right now," he said.

However, when asked if there was equal willingness to use these services, Cunnington replied "Er..." – which Lamb seized on: "No. That hesitation suggests that you don't."

The GDS exec shrugged off the pause, and told the chair: "I genuinely feel there's not a need for you to get involved in any one specific... There's no specific area I'd want you to take away and focus on."

Eventually, he settled on the euphemism of "less mature departments" for the digital laggards – as well as saying GDS needed to strengthen its efforts to help them – but again didn't really define this, other than that it would be "in general" the smaller departments.

It was almost immediately clear the civil servants' evidence had failed to appease Stringer as he used a second evidence session with DCMS minister Margot James and Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden to vent.

"We had a Sir Humphrey performance previously, from the officials who refused point blank to tell us which departments weren't progressing as quickly as they might," he said, asking the ministers to be more objective and specific.

It's unlikely, though, that Dowden's mealy-mouthed response was what the committee was looking for. "In general terms, we've succeeded almost completely on digitisation in its simplest term, which is a digital interface. The challenge is how we ensure end to end – that all the processes behind – are being done digitally."

Asked again which departments were the laggards, he said that the government didn't "tend to view it by departments, but by projects". Unsurprisingly, he was then asked about projects, to which he mumbled something about Universal Credit having had "well-documented issues" but that these were "in the past".

(For those who can't recall ancient history, the most recent criticism from the Public Accounts Committee, in October, said it was sceptical the system could handle the 4 million people on legacy benefits that still need to be transferred.)

'We don't have a sort of score sheet'

Dowden quickly smoothed over his reference to the embattled benefits project, saying: "I think really, in terms of the approach we're taking, we don't have a sort of score sheet that says, this department's good, that department's bad..."

Pressed to give any specifics – for instance, by saying which projects are red RAG-rated (Red-Amber-Green) – Dowden fudged that he didn't think the government disclosed RAG ratings. "I don't think they're in the public domain."

Dowden did later refer to the Infrastructure and Projects Authority's annual report, which does include RAG ratings on major projects, but by the time they are made public the assessments are about 9 months out of date.

He added that there is a cross-government "digital implementation taskforce" (PDF, p18) responsible for overseeing the rollout of digital infrastructure and can challenge departments on the state of progress.

This had found 86 key strategic projects where it is most important to get "end-to-end digitisation" and a further 800 that are "being digitised", he said.

However, he was unable to provide much further detail on whether or how these projects were prioritised, or to help MPs understand how strategies were drawn up within government – and their frustration was palpable.

"You see, minister, you've just given me seven acronyms and all I'm asking for is what are the priorities for digitisation. If I'm a scale up, where do I look to know what government is prioritising... where do I look to understand the strategy government has?" Darren Jones, Labour MP for Bristol North West asked at one point.

In response, Dowden pointed to the 2017 Government Transformation Strategy, which seemed to placate the MP a little – but still didn't satisfy questions about whether there was a cross-government audit of legacy kit.

The idea that Whitehall, and the rest of the public sector, is littered with creaky systems was plainly on the committee's minds – it has clearly heard no end of evidence about the dangers of outdated tech, and repeatedly referenced the WannaCry attack.

They mooted the idea of recommending a cross-departmental legacy audit, to understand the scale and extent of the problem, which Dowden said he thought his department could do, but emphasised that the responsibility for replacing such kit – and making the case to the Treasury for the funds to do so – lay with each individual department.

When asked similar questions about the risks of legacy technology lurking across government, Cunnington noted that every department had to rely on it, because replacing functional tech was rarely prioritised over new policy requirements.

However, he acknowledged there "is a real security concern" driving organisations to move off legacy kit and that it was important to move away from it as quickly as feasibly possible. But Cunnington also indicated there were budgetary implications at play.

Elsewhere in the hearing, the MPs raised questions about how SMEs can get access to government procurement, and Dowden said an emergent tech strategy – due out in spring – would set out measures for helping such firms participate.

Other topics covered included problems with IT knowledge within government and recruitment and retention of skilled staff, and both the importance and risks – ethical and technical – of making better use of the data that government holds, along with its use by private sector firms. ®

*Bootnote

In case you're not British and have no idea what the MPs are going on about, Sir Humphrey Appleby was a character in '80s BBC satirical sitcoms Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister. As Permanent Secretary for the Department of Administrative Affairs (a made-up branch of the government) and later Cabinet Secretary, he was adept at manipulating and misleading through long, winding statements that essentially confused his colleagues into silent assent. So Sir Humphrey as a verb, in this case, means to not give a straight answer.

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