Labour wants a truly digital government. Photo: Flickr/Wonderlane
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What is Labour's plan for building a digital government?

Innovation and democracy.

Five years ago I entered politics for the same reason I went into engineering almost a quarter of a century earlier – I wanted to make the world work for everyone, not just a lucky few.

Digital should be a means to that classic Labour goal of sharing power amongst the many. Rather than the means for a slimmed down state to divide, exclude and enforce - as appears to be this Government’s vision.

That is why in March, as shadow cabinet office minister for digital government, I asked an independent expert advisory board to conduct a review of digital government to set out clear goals for a digital agenda that will improve services and empower citizens whilst being efficient and cost effective

All too often government is something done to the people. A Labour Digital government must not be like that.

The Digital Government Review took as its basis that there is a need for better integrated services which reflect the needs and capabilities of citizens and their communities.

The report, published today, makes 35 recommendations to make digital government work for everyone.

Labour will need to take the time to study the report in detail as we continue our zero based review process and prepare our manifesto. But an initial reading makes clear that this is a comprehensive roadmap for transforming the relationship between government and citizens.

Thanks to the wide ranging expertise of our independent panel combined with over 2000 submissions and responses, it is an important, authoritative, radical and evidence based contribution to the future of progressive public service as well as a stand-alone reference work for the current status of digital government.

The report leads on  the primary importance of  digital inclusion, in contrast to this Government’s attitude of  "get online or lose out". The Government Digital Service (GDS) is a hugely experienced and talented group within the Cabinet Office but Ministers have focussed on headline grabbing areas that can only be used by 80 per cent of the population, rather than building more valuable services that can be used by everyone and that help with some of this country’s biggest challenges such as economic growth, planning, housing or health and social care. Using social value – as well as cost-savings – as the criteria for choosing what services to take digital would help here.

The report is especially severe on  this Government’s chaotic approach to data sharing, as demonstrated by the care.data and HMRC debacles, and recommends Labour establish a review of data in Government. In his Hugo Young lecture in March Ed Miliband said that the presumption should be that everybody should own their own public sector data. Labour will build on that with a review that will establish a coherent and ethical approach to the use of data within government.

The report also makes important recommendations on public sector skills and leadership. The digital revolution cannot be confined to certain departments in Whitehall. In the future all government will be digital and public servants in local and national government need to understand and be inspired by the prospect of using digital to improve all our lives, working with people, as well as for people. The report argues strongly for increased collaboration and reuse between  local authorities, through local ‘digital factories’ with support from central government.

It’s not a simple matter to address. There are issues of culture, of leadership, of accountability, of collaboration and of building architectures based on open standards.

On Thursday, Jon Cruddas will be speaking at the Institute for Government on our broader vision for building a digital state for innovation and democracy, a digital revolution for people’s power

The next Labour government will be the most digital government ever and the prize of digital government that works for everyone glitters before us. Right now though, most people are experiencing what I call digital discomfort—the sense that Government knows who we are calling, Amazon is telling us what we should be buying, our children and friends are being harassed online, Google is recording our every move and we are all reeling under the onslaught of spam and email scams.

To address these concerns and capture the prize of digital government we need a new kind of government devolving power and responsibility and sharing power with people. By giving people skills, control and information Labour will put the people in control of increasingly digital public services. This report sets out how we can do this. Only a radical Labour administration in 2015 can bring about a progressive digital government which delivers for the citizen.

Chi Onwurah is Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and shadow Cabinet Office minister

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy. 

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear