Governments govern. Oppositions oppose – or, more positively, present an alternative set of policies based on an alternative political perspective. Political initiatives taken by one government will be looked at critically by its potential successors, for the obvious reason that the decisions embodied in those initiatives will have been taken by people with different political goals, different political instincts and in a different political context.
That doesn’t, of course, mean that every decision taken by one government is overturned by the next. It does mean that new policies and new institutions created by one government are likely to be looked at closely by parties with the ambition to form the next government, and mere assertions of the virtues of those policies by third parties are unlikely to be persuasive. Some policies survive that scrutiny and go on to be part of the shared understanding of what governments do and how they do it. Others do not.
And that brings us to a little flurry of concern yesterday about a Computer Weekly article on a Labour party review of digital government, with a headline which proclaims
GDS becomes political as Labour launches digital government review
I am not interested, for this purpose, in whether the questions said to be covered in that review are good questions or whether the right assumptions are being made about what the best answers might be. What I am interested in about the article and some of the commentary round it is two points.
The first is the implication that a review by Labour politicises something which was previously apolitical. The second is that it is somehow illegitimate to question the government’s digital policy in general and GDS in particular. Behind them both is the idea that there is an objectively correct policy which, once found, should transcend politics. That matters not just because it is wrong – though it is (as I argued in much more detail in a post last year) – but because it sets up the wrong kind of argument.
GDS is a creature of the current government and is the result of decisions by its ministers. Those decisions were made in the context of a set of political views and priorities. That doesn’t make GDS itself a political organisation, it doesn’t mean that those who work there share the ideological framework of its political creators, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the only possible justification for what it does and how it does it is in terms of that ideological framework. But it does mean that the existence of GDS is and always has been political, in the same sense that every other policy and its implementation is political.
Should Labour come to power after the next election, the people in GDS will carry on implementing the policy of the government of the day, because that’s what civil servants do. That policy may be to continue on the current path. It may be to adjust it marginally – to prioritise the development of one service over another, for example. Or it may be to change the approach more radically, perhaps to the extent of changing what GDS does or dispensing with it altogether. Whatever it is, civil servants will do their best to make it happen, again because that’s what civil servants do. It’s not the job of anybody in GDS to express a preference between a government by – or the policies of – one party rather than another, so they won’t.
That doesn’t stop anybody else, of course, from attempting to persuade any party they choose of any policy they choose to advocate, including the policy of not changing the current policy. On the contrary, doing so is also a vital part of the political process.
The potential mistake is not in having a view that the Labour party should have a digital policy which is broadly a continuation of the policy of the present government.1 It is not even in having a view that policy continuity in this area itself has value. The mistake is in claiming that such a policy would somehow be less political than any other. It might be less politically contentious, but that isn’t at all the same thing.
“I want to take the politics out of this” is often a way of saying “I want to make it illegitimate to challenge the status quo”. Politics is the art of making public choices, and we do not make an issue less political by denying that there are choices involved.
Technology is not neutral. Service design is not neutral. Decisions about priorities and resources are not neutral. There are some important questions facing the future government – any future government – about where digital goes next. The decisions and priorities of 2015 (to say nothing of 2020) will not be those of 2010. The Computer Weekly article and commentary by Alex Blandford and Matthew Cain all make good points about what the issues are and how they should be thought about. There are debates to be had, and we all benefit if well-informed people take part in those debates and influence their direction.
But those debates are intrinsically political, because digital is political.
- Though I am not expressing an opinion myself one way or the other. ↩