Francis Maude: Fact-finding mission explores digital world

Horsham MP Francis Maude
Horsham MP Francis Maude

This article may prompt some reactions from Horsham residents asking: “Why isn’t Francis spending his time in Horsham?” Well, this week I am doing exactly that, with important meetings and visits covering major local issues. I’ll write about those next week.

But I want to write about last week which I spent in - cue storm of protest - the United States and Mexico. The weather was good but no better than this week in sunny Sussex!

What was I doing? I was leading a team of senior government officials to the West Coast to build our understanding of how the digital revolution can save money for taxpayers while improving public services.

We visited some modern household names: Amazon, Google, PayPal and Facebook; and had presentations from a host of new start-up tech companies. These covered an enormous range of activities. From advanced identity assurance services through applications to enable comparison of spending and outcomes in different government organisations to hardware that enable fleets of vehicles to be managed much more efficiently and cheaply: we came away teeming with ideas. We concluded that cloud computing, far from being less secure than running your own servers and data centres, can actually be more secure, as well as many times cheaper.

And we were also able to sell Britain as a great place to run a digital and tech business. It isn’t just London and Tech City. There are digital clusters springing up all over the country, Brighton’s among the most vibrant. I have little doubt that one of the results of our visit will be some of these companies deciding to set up their European base here in the UK.

So the benefits of a very intense four days on the West Coast will be some civil service leaders coming back able to convince others that the digital revolution can dramatically improve how government works, with a host of practical ideas that we can press on with straightaway; and some inward investment that can create jobs and security here in Britain.

So then on to Mexico. Not to the beaches and the sun but to Mexico City, a throbbing metropolis of 25 million people. This time to talk to the government and others about open government and transparency. Mexico took over from us in November as co-chair of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), and we have a huge interest in supporting them to make this young but fast-growing international organisation a success. OGP has a sprawling bureaucracy of three - yes three - people whom I visited while in San Francisco. But its work is world-changing. Transparency and open data is the friend of reformers worldwide. It is no coincidence that the only government to drop its membership has been Russia!

So a busy week, but well worth the jet lag. Next week - back to earth in Horsham!