Government Digital Service Podcast

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #6 - an interview with Oliver Dowden, Minister for Implementation

February 21, 2019

In this episode, we talk to Minister for Implementation, Oliver Dowden CBE MP about digital government. A full transcript of the episode follows:

 

Sarah Stewart: Hello and welcome to the GDS podcast. I'm Sarah Stewart. I'm a senior writer at the Government Digital Service.

We're recording this podcast on location in the office of today's guest. Oliver Dowden became Minister for Implementation in January 2018. With this promotion came responsibility for digital government. One year on, we will talk about his year in office, his current focus and the future, in particular innovation. Minister, welcome.

 

Oliver Dowden: Good afternoon, thank you for having me on.

 

Sarah Stewart: Now, most people can imagine what a studio looks like but not many people would know what a minister's office looks like. So can you help set the scene? Where exactly are we?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well I'm very fortunate with this ministerial office. It's the sort of ministerial office that people imagine their minister to have. It's actually overlooking Horse Guards Parade, so you can see where the Trooping of the Colour happens. And it's one of those classic sort of 18th century buildings with a very high ceiling. So it's a very pleasant place to work. I'm very privileged to have an office like this.

 

Sarah Stewart: And we're right in the middle of Whitehall as well, so we're really at the centre of government.

 

Oliver Dowden: Yes, completely. We're number 70 Whitehall, so we are next door to 10 Downing Street and to the Treasury building, Parliament is diagonally opposite and it’s in the Cabinet Office.

 

The Cabinet Office is really the heart of the government machine. It's kind of like the government's HQ. It brings different parts of government to work together. It coordinates, it cajoles. We try to facilitate things working across the whole of government. And one example of this is the Government Digital Service - how we ensure that digital transformation happens across government, how we have the same standards across government, how we embrace emergent technologies in government.

 

Sarah Stewart: It’s a really fantastic place from which to operate. So, just before we start...I take it at the portrait of Pitt the Younger on your wall isn't from your personal collection?

 

Oliver Dowden: No, sadly, sadly it's not and I'm certainly not trying to send any message with Pitt the Younger behind me! [laughter] I look at Pitt the Younger and think how little I have achieved! I think he became Prime Minister in his twenties, although I think he perhaps died when he was about my age or shortly afterwards.

 

Sarah Stewart: Well at great risk to my reputation, I'm going to venture some 18th century political trivia – I believe it was it was Pitt the Younger who shaped the role of Prime Minister into one of a coordinator of government departments – so this is my convenient segue into asking you how it feels to be a coordinator of a government department.

 

Oliver Dowden: Well I work to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, David

Lidington, so I suppose he's the ultimate coordinator of my government department in which I serve as a minister. But certainly an awful lot of what I do as a minister is coordination.

So whether that is the functional agenda that works across government, so the coordination of a common government estates policy, coordination of common government HR, common government commercial relationships and common government digital practices, all of this is about trying to move from a situation where you have in each individual government department you have a completely separate commercial team, a completely separate estates team completely separate HR team, and say ‘actually in most government departments we have a lot in common so why don't we try and work together, follow the common good and harness our combined powers’, as it were, and it also fits into another part of my brief which is implementation...I’m the Minister for Implementation people usually ask ‘well what does that actually mean?’...

 

Sarah Stewart:...Yes, how did you get that title? Is that something you select yourself? Or..?

 

Oliver Dowden: Yes, well it was the Prime Minister...so when the Prime Minister appointed me at the beginning of last year, she said that one of the big challenges we have in government is it's perhaps the easiest thing is for politicians to make promises. It's harder, in particular at the moment, in a hung parliament, to get legislation through Parliament to make it happen.

But then how do you actually ensure that the delivery happens on the ground? And what can we do as a Cabinet Office, as ministers to try and coordinate the delivery on the ground and to deal with problems when delivery isn't happening in the way that we want. That's the essence of the implementation role: trying to unblock those problems, trying to ensure that we're on track to deliver the things that the public elected us to do. And also, I'm aided in that by the fact that I have oversight of all the government functions, so I can use the sort of mechanisms we have into our procurement relationships through commercial, our digital relationships through the digital team to try and get that broader picture of how government works.

 

Sarah Stewart: So was there anything in your background that prepared you for your role? How did you end up here?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well it depends where you want to begin with the journey. I mean, I went to my local comprehensive school and from there, I did quite well academically and I thought you know, I did quite well academically, what do you do if you get good grades? I fancy could I be a maybe a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher or maybe an accountant? Those were the only things I could think of. So I thought well law sounds... being a lawyer sounds quite interesting, so I applied and was fortunate enough to win a place to study law at Cambridge. I studied law...I didn't find it the most exciting, enjoyable thing to do [laughs] but I got offered a place, a training contract, with a city firm. But I wasn't so sure about it so I decided to try and do something different. So I actually worked in Japan teaching for a year in rural Japan...

 

Sarah Stewart: Oh wow.

 

Oliver Dowden: ...which was a fascinating experience in very, very rural Japan. I was a long way from any other English speakers and I didn't actually speak a word of English – of Japanese – when I arrived so I sort of had to learn my Japanese from a book. But it was a fascinating experience. I came back, I completed my legal training, but I realised very rapidly that law wasn't for me and after a few different jobs, I kind of got into advisory work and from there found out about an opportunity to work for the Conservative Party. I've always been a Conservative, but never thought of politics as being something I'd actually do for my main job.

I worked on the 2005 election campaign and I got to know David Cameron. And when he became leader of the Conservative Party, I ended up working for him on the 2010 General Election campaign and he asked me to go into Number 10, initially as political adviser and then deputy chief of staff in Downing Street. And I genuinely thought when the 2015 election came around, I'll leave after that. And then essentially my home seat... the incumbent Member of Parliament was retiring from my home seat, and eventually after lots of sort of deliberating and discussing it with my family, I thought I'd regret not, you know, seizing the opportunity and having the privilege of representing an area that I knew so well. And I was fortunate enough

to be selected as a candidate and elected as Member of Parliament in 2015, and then fortunate enough to be appointed as minister in the government by the Prime Minister at the beginning of 2018.

I mean, I think in terms of what shaped me and helped me in this, I think having exposure to lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds whether that's, you know, a complete culture shock of teaching in rural Japan or...I certainly don't come from a political family or a family that has any experience in sort of government, so you certainly get a different perspective there in terms of seeing things from the outside. That's certainly given me, and in my wider ministerial role, a passion for ensuring that we have genuine diversity both in the Civil Service and in public appointments, because I really think that if you get a group of people around the table who have different experiences whether that's culture, education, gender, ethnic background, those different experiences coming together helps you make better decisions and strengthens decision-making. And also, I think it's morally incumbent on government, for the country, to be governed by people who represent the country as a whole.

 

Sarah Stewart: I'd like to know what your very first job was.

 

Oliver Dowden: My very first job was actually working in a warehouse in Dunstable, which is just outside of Luton in Bedfordshire. It was an import/export business and I spent many holidays and summers and so on. Particularly two tasks I remember: respraying faulty produce that came in and then and wiring lamps. I wired lots and lots of lamps during those years and then boxing and packing and sending them on. But it was a relatively small organization and our duties extended to everything including cleaning, and you know the whole gambit.

 

Sarah Stewart: So the seeds for technology were sewn actually at a very early age.

 

Oliver Dowden: The practical application of technology, definitely!

 

Sarah Stewart: So you we're David Cameron's deputy chief of staff, so you were around during the creation of the Government Digital Service. How does it feel to go from witnessing the creation of an organization to being the minister

responsible for it in quite a short period of time?

 

Oliver Dowden:

I mean I don't I don't want to overplay my hand in the creation of the Government Digital Service – I pay real tribute to Francis Maude who was the minister that drove the creation of this.

And you know, in Number 10, we were very supportive of it, and I think what Francis did fantastically with the Government Digital Service was to seize the opportunity of creating something that sits across the whole of government, drives digital transformation. And he took some very bold decisions. He wasn't afraid to break things as it were, to drive the digital transformation. And he really got the Government Digital Service established and established the UK's a world leader in this space. So I kind of had a sense of the origins of the Government Digital Service, certainly coming in as one of the ministers responsible for it, reporting to David Lidington.

I think there's more we can do to be telling the story of how much GDS has achieved and how much it is currently doing. So for example if you look at Government as a Platform, the creation of GOV.UK, that's a common platform for all of government, it brings together disparate areas of government activity which now literally has billions of hits every year. We're pioneering things like GOV.UK Notify, GOV.UK Pay, again all of this is trying to do two things. First of all to move away from individual departments to the common government experience. I think most people just want to go somewhere and get government to do something for them. So removing those kind of artificial boundaries, but secondly continuing this push about how we drive the best innovation and disruption because it's really the tech revolution is driven by disruption and it's that's quite a challenge for government to cope with it but we have to keep on pushing because otherwise we will find government falling behind the rest of the economy.

 

Sarah Stewart: So what's the current focus for digital government at the moment?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well I think it's a number of things. First of all it is continuing and driving their end-to-end digitisation of government services so we need to... almost all government services now have an initial digital interface, but it's not the case that all government services are digitised all the way through. Often there are mechanical back-office functions, that slow things down and we're not taking the best advantage of the use of tech. So that is the kind of that digital transformation sits at the core. It's also creating commonalities across government, so continuing to drive the government as a platform and continue to develop such as GOV.UK Notify and so on. It's about driving up training and understanding – not just people in the digital profession – but wider policymakers say they understand the potential and it's also about seeing how we can apply the latest technology and GDS being a guide and a leader for departments in how they can embrace that new technology.

 

Sarah Stewart: So as you've alluded to, your brief is very varied. How do you focus your time?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well, to a certain extent they complement one another. So if you take, for example, emergent technology, I'm very keen for the government to embrace emergent technology, to use the opportunities that are there to help transform the service that citizens receive, and do so in a more efficient way. That kind of then links in to how we deliver and how we achieve implementation, but it also links into the commercial part of my brief because a lot of that has to be procured from the private sector.

So I tend to think of it more in terms of where can I really focus my efforts. But an area that really interests me, and I think we've got a huge potential, is in relation to GovTech and to innovative technologies and government digital transformation. I think for a number of reasons. I think first of all, it's one of those few areas where you can say hand on heart, if we get this right we can deliver more for less and we can deliver a better outcome for citizens. That's pretty unusual across different areas of government. The second reason is that we have a wonderful tech sector in this country and actually if we can prove that tech works to deliver better outcomes for people in the UK Government, it unlocks opportunities for tech companies to apply that around the world. I think thirdly, in terms of the wider implementation role, if you think about how people's experience of consuming in the private sector has changed enormously in the past 10 or 20 years through disruptive technologies whether that's – not recommending any particular company – but let's say the way Amazon has transformed the shopping and consumer experience, Airbnb in relation to accommodation, as Spotify and others in relation to the consumption of music, all those kind of disruptions are making products more easily available, often more cheaply available and more readily accessible in general. I think we should be aspiring to do the same thing in respective to public services. And I think if we fail to do that in respective public services in years to come people will begin to draw an unfavorable contrast between how they consume services in the public sector versus how they do so in the private sector.

 

Sarah Stewart: So, what exactly is standing in our way, in terms of government making process?

 

Oliver Dowden: There are areas of very very good practice across different bits of government. So, for example, HMRC has done a lot of work in terms of embracing repeat robotic processes, similarly DWP, if you look at, for example, the government GovTech Challenge. This is a fund to use new and emergent technologies. We've been doing some fantastic stuff around AI and geospatial data but it's not a consistent picture. So I think one of the things I'm trying to do in the production of an emergent technology strategy, is to try and draw out the best of what government is doing, showcase it, learn what we did to make that work well so then those lessons can be applied elsewhere in government. But it links into other areas as well. How we procure those kind of things from the private sector how we get the best of innovation from the private sector and it goes to things like the culture of government. So we want to make sure that people feel empowered to be able to take proportionate risks. I think you're not going to get innovation without taking risks and sometimes those risks will go wrong. It is okay to fail, if you're helping to drive that innovation. So, trying to achieve that that cultural change as well.

 

Sarah Stewart: Why do we need a strategy?

 

Oliver Dowden: It’s not about government sticking a finger in the air and saying ‘we want to go for blockchain because it's the technology of the moment’, it's just thinking how we how we can make use of that, so that that kind of started the ball rolling. But when you start the ball rolling about how do you think you can use emergent technology, that opens up wider questions, as I said around procurement, around the culture of government, so it's sort of broadened into those different areas. And actually it's been very interesting in framing this strategy – rather than us sort of sitting in Whitehall with a few at policy officials trying to come up with a policy, we've tried to go out there and talk to people. So I've held events in different parts of the country, indeed I also attended an event in in Paris where we talked about this as well, which was hosted, well variously attended, by both the President of France and the Prime Minister of Canada, which gives you some sort of indication of the seriousness that all governments are taking. But we've also been to Edinburgh, to different parts of England, the rest of United Kingdom. And you get consistent messages coming through. And those relate to how we need to change the culture of government, to embrace new technologies, how we need to change the way we buy in technologies, how we need to improve skills. So hopefully what people will see in the strategy, when it's produced, are sensible steps to help us do that. I'm not promising that this is going to be the endpoint, clearly it won't be, but hopefully there will be some helpful signposts along the route.

 

Sarah Stewart: So in that period of engagement was there anything that really stood out to you? Any ‘aha!’ moments you learned from any of the academics or the practitioners or tech leaders in the field?

 

Oliver Dowden: I think all roads lead back data. And it's certainly the case that data...it really feels to me that this year and the next year is the moment where we move from seeing the potential of data that's been talked about a lot to actually it's starting to lead to some big breakthroughs in how we do things differently. And actually you're starting to see it in the health sector already. And I think that it strikes me that this is a very exciting time, but in order to unlock that there's a lot of work to be done. For example, the government holds a huge amount of data, but often that data is not accessible, so we need to look about how we make it more accessible and we also need to look at how we make people not just do all the sort of tech experts understand the potential but all policymakers need to understand the potential of the data that they hold. So I think if there's one ‘aha moment’ when I thought that this is something we could really go big on that is probably it.

Sarah Stewart: If I could just move on to talk to you about your work with SMEs and the GovTech sector.You've said previously that innovation relies on, or successful innovation relies on, a good relationship with the private sector. Why can't government go it alone?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well I think we have we have so many opportunities out there. If you look at the kind of interesting, innovative stuff that is going on with SMEs, it’s not just SMEs, large companies as well they're doing interesting stuff with emergent technologies, they're doing interesting stuff with data. The idea that government is going to have all the answers or can create all the answers... if we don't embrace that what's going on the private sector [could mean] we're missing out on a huge amount of knowledge and creativity. And I think the best way to proceed is to work in in partnership, so there will be some instances – and GDS does this a lot – GDS does stuff in-house, but equally we buy in skills and knowledge and I think that then reinforces a healthy mixed-market economy whereby we create opportunities for the private sector. The private sector manages to grow through having those opportunities, but we get lots of ideas and intellectual property from the private sector. I think that enriches both sides of the economy in the UK and helps strengthen our position as a global digital leader.

 

Sarah Stewart: How are you making – or how is government – making it easier for the private sector and the public sector to collaborate?

 

Oliver Dowden: We've already made a good start with GovTech [Catalyst] which is a £20 million fund announced by the Treasury just last year that has been run through Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service. We've had three rounds of challenges doing lots of interesting... taking lots of interesting challenges and using emergent technologies to address them. And what GovTech has done is to try and sort of soften the barrier between government and the private sector through procurement, because I think, too often, government decides what it wants then goes out to market with a very prescriptive solution and quite a rigid procurement process. Having the opportunity to have a competition where you have different stages so different people pitch into what the solution might look like is one things we managed to do with GovTech, and it forms part of a pattern that I hope we can add to where we have the opportunity for soft engagement in procurement before it actually happens. We can get the ideas from the private sectors to what we're after and how we procure it.

 

Sarah Stewart: So there is life for digital government beyond the end of the Government Transformation Strategy? They'll always be work to do.

 

Oliver Dowden: Oh there will always be work to do. I don't think the digital transformation of society and the economy as a whole is going to end anytime soon [laughter] and government has to keep up with it.

 

Sarah Stewart: And of course, we're supporting EU exit as well. GDS is playing an important role there. Do you think that meeting the short-term needs of EU exit will in be in any way compromised, or compromise, the longer term ambitions for government transformation or indeed, do you think it will accelerate it?

 

Oliver Dowden: I think it's more likely to be the latter. I think there are there are big opportunities created by the need to adapt to Brexit and certainly, necessity can often drive innovation and I think that's one of the core things that GDS is doing.

 

Sarah Stewart: You mentioned the principles of GDS and indeed other departments who are undergoing digital transformation. And the first principle is users first. And I suppose as a constituency MP, you're doing user research all the time, listening to what people want and wanting to deliver on those things. How does that play into your role as a minister? How does what they say, translate?

 

Oliver Dowden: I'm the number one thing is that most people care about outcomes not processes. I think what GDS is doing is increasingly shifting that focus towards the output regardless of the different government processes so for example we're looking at how you can just type in ‘learn to drive’ and it cuts across the different parts of government that help you achieve that or ‘start your own business’ or ‘move house’ – all those kind of things. That's that's what citizens are looking for and I think that's that would be an increasing trend in what we're doing I think. That also links in to how you interface as well. Depending on almost precisely how old you are, you relate to digital in different ways and increasingly there's use of voice technology, accessing technology through all different mediums we need to make sure we're keeping up with that.

 

Sarah Stewart: You mentioned visiting the GovTech summit in Paris. Do you keep an eye on what other governments are doing in the innovation space? Is there any country in particular that's piquing your interest?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well I think we're fortunate to be quite ahead of the curve in the UK, but I'm always conscious of who's playing catch up and it's interesting – all around the world people are starting to do this. So Singapore have made it a huge priority and hopefully I'm going to Denmark later this month, where again the government there is really committed to digital transformation and everyone knows about Estonia as well, that was the leader though clearly Estonia it’s slightly different. Canada is doing a lot of work. I was talking to High Commissioner about it just the other day. So there is definitely...I wouldn't say a race because I think we're all trying to get to the same endpoint, but I want to make sure that the UK is at the forefront of doing that.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yes, what do they say? A rising tide lifts all ships?

 

Oliver Dowden: Exactly.

 

Sarah Stewart: When you were on your travels and conducting your engagement to inform the strategy was there anyone in particular that you found particularly interesting or that really helped shape your understanding?

 

Oliver Dowden: Yes there's lots of examples. I think what's being done with CivTech in Scotland it's very interesting. We've kind of done a similar thing to it with GovTech but I think there are definitely lessons that we can learn from there. You can't help but be impressed by some of the tech applications particularly in relation to virtual reality. That's some way down the line for government but it is certainly something that makes you think.

 

Sarah Stewart: And just as we draw to a close, what have been the high points of your year?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well it was I must say it was a tremendous privilege to be in Paris and President Macron hosted us for lunch at the Élysée Palace, we were able to talk about this on a pan-European level. That brought home to me how this is an exciting and emergent trend, but also looking in terms of the practical application, seeing how the use of technology has been transforming people's lives and that's what we're all in government for in the end, making people's lives better.

 

Sarah Stewart: And there was one more thing…the podcast of course.

 

Oliver Dowden: Of course! Oh but you asked up til now! The podcast is ongoing!

 

Sarah Stewart: Well that brings us to the end of today's podcast. Thank you so much for joining us it's been really interesting.

 

Oliver Dowden: Pleasure, thank you.

 

Sarah Stewart: Thank you very much for listening. I hope you enjoyed it and that you'll listen again next month when we talk to more interesting people about interesting things in the world of digital government. Until then, farewell.