Another milestone in digital: publication of UK government departmental digital strategies

Over the past few days, Whitehall departments have been publishing their digital strategies. One of the best is the FCO’s (link below), but each is worth studying in its own right, as the balance of online provision and engagement varies according to the services provided by the department, and the role of digital in improving citizen engagement. The UK government has come a long way since it embarked in embracing the online revolution in the nineties, which started under John Major. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office had its first website in 1995. Tony Blair as Prime Minister appointed Sir Alex Allan as his first e-Envoy. Sir Alex and Mike Granatt, Head of the Government Information and Communication Service, appointed me as the UK government’s first Director of e-Communications, dubbed in the media “Webmaster-General”, following a long career in BBC and ITV. I also had a shorter yet highly relevant one in a careers,, the brainchild of the city headhunter, Martin Armstrong. The year 2000 was a roller-coaster year for dot.coms, and I experienced its peaks and troughs, all the time posting my blog as Career Guru.As Director of e-Communications, working with No10 and based in the Cabinet Office, I and other colleagues launched the government’s first portal. I was its first editor, (the portal later became, established the first cross-government online strategy (including making a commitment to reduce 1000 websites to 400), and created a professional network of e-communicators. In each department where I led communications – DEFRA, DCA, what is now Ministry of Justice, FCO- we tried to integrate communications to speed up delivery of customer services and open up information and policy making. Significant steps in my own career were lead responsibility for implementation of the Freedom of Information Act across all government communications of systems and procedures to embed FoI; and overseeing a major programme at the FCO to make its websites web 2.0 compatible. In 2007, this gave us for the first time the capability to be interactive, and spearhead digital engagement, including the first wave of ambassador blogs. Freedom of Information Act most civil servants and politicians found to be a mixed blessing: I never did, and despite admittedly too many vexatious requests to government departments, I still believe that public service and citizens themselves, rather than media, need to tap the potential of more open government. There still needs to be a space to develop policy without going immediately public, and some matters of national security and commercial confidence need to be restricted. But these are exceptions to the rule. However much the UK civil service feels under enormous pressure, I know from keeping in touch with many civil servants, particularly its diplomats, how much the online revolution is a source of renewal, reinvention and reform. Our diplomatic service is world-class, constantly there to pursue the UK’s interest, forging alliances and partnerships on shared values and agendas. Digital communications have given our diplomats the working tools to navigate the unchartered waters of the 21st century, particularly in operating more openly, more credibly, more effectively in a 24/7 news environment, where social media networks are increasingly important.Congratulations to FCO, the Government Digital Service and all other departments on publication of digital strategies. We need good strategies, but great execution. But without strategy, delivery is blind.

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