Elections are disruptive. They disturb inertia, change the game. Because of that, they can have a big impact on teams and leaders trying to do things differently.
If these plans are going well, an election can pose a risk; sapping momentum, by shifting priorities or creating confusion. But if a government is stuck, elections can open a window for fresh ideas and impetus. Finding the political space to set up GDS in 2011 required a new administration to come to power, even though the basic idea had cross-party support.
Companies don’t tend to talk openly about elections. Like any moment of change, they’re a time of risk and opportunity. Acknowledging involvement in the political process can feel awkward. But we know transformation doesn’t happen without leadership. In government, that means political leadership as much as what’s in the public service.
Whatever views we have personally, Public Digital as a company doesn’t have a partisan view - instead, we have our positions. One of those is ‘openness is something all organisations should value and practice’, which is why we’re writing about this.
We will always want governments to work better, and believe that parts of them have to radically change in order for that to happen. There are already examples of those ways of working in some parts of the UK’s central government, delivering better outcomes for citizens and users. But there aren’t enough.
Whichever party assumes power in 2024, we would like to see the next administration be bold and ambitious in how it reworks the machinery of state to tackle the country’s biggest challenges.
By convention, the civil service has a long tradition of talking to opposition parties as part of election preparations. We feel that at Public Digital we should do the same.
So from this month, our PD partner Emily will be seconded part-time to a think tank called Labour Together to set up and help run a digital and technology policy unit. The role will focus on policy research and advice, not campaigning. Emily doesn’t work on any UK government clients, so there is a clear gap between her PD work and the secondment.
We work with Ministers and Presidents of different political persuasions all over the globe. Many of us worked under (now Lord) Francis Maude when he was Minister for Cabinet Office in the UK Coalition government. We won’t come to push an angle on a particular technology. Instead, we hope to find opportunities to give shadow ministers an insight into what they will encounter should they find themselves in a ministerial office with a mandate for change.
What levers can they pull to achieve the outcomes they want? Which ones work now, and which will they have to create anew themselves? Why do digital and technology programmes frequently still fail in government? What skills will your team and department need to make it ready for an uncertain future? What can the UK learn from what others are doing around the world? And how do you ultimately deliver on economic growth, the NHS, climate, and the other pressures of governing?
The need for radical thinking about how the government works to untangle society’s biggest challenges feels more urgent than ever.
We know we will be one voice amongst many. But we plan to play the fullest possible role we can.