Digital minister: ‘I’m one up from a Luddite – but I am grasping this enthusiastically’
PublicTechnology met with the recently appointed Heather Wheeler, who reveals that overcoming difficulties with tech has been ‘an absolute joy’ – although she still appears to have some challenges with unfortunate remarks
After publicly announcing a new strategy for digital government, the minister responsible for its implementation admits she has been on a transformation of her own to overcome her technological struggles in the weeks since being appointed.
However, the response to her unveiling of the Whitehall-wide plan demonstrates that another familiar issue – that of ill-judged comments – seemingly continues to pose challenges for Heather Wheeler.
After the delivery of her opening speech an event last week to mark the publication of the strategy, PublicTechnology asked Wheeler, a parliamentary secretary at the Cabinet Office, how she had adapted to her new ministerial brief. She was appointed to her role – which includes oversight of the Government Digital Service and Central Digital and Data Office – in mid-February.
Wheeler (pictured above) acknowledges that she has long thought of herself as being “one up from a Luddite”.
“Ministers have absolutely signed up to this strategy. And, as it happens, there haven't been any recalcitrant perm secs either, trying to shove this in the bin."
“I will struggle to work out where the bit at the back of the computer goes in that does the bit at the front of the computer,” she adds. “And I really like using a mouse! I don't like using that square thing in the middle, with your finger moving it around. So, this has been… [not just about] about transforming civil service: it has been about transforming minister Wheeler! But it’s been a joy – it's been an absolute joy.”
Recent developments in her working life have included the adoption of an electronic version of her red box – the name given to the cases in which ministers transport government documents.
“We are getting there. So, instead of me carrying home the box over the weekend – full of papers – I have this electronic box… but it sets its challenges; the first time I was trying to open something on it, I had the government iPad, the government laptop, and the government iPhone – and I had to get all three going. And I'm thinking: ‘how is this saving the planet?! I've got to power all this up’. Anyway, that was a little glitch – and we've got over that now. And I am grasping this enthusiastically because, genuinely, if I can do it – then anybody can do it.”
She adds that she intends to further boost her newly acquired technical skills by undertaking formal training.
The digital and data strategy – which is called Transforming for a Digital Future, and sets out a range of objectives for the three-year period to March 2025 – includes a commitment that “over 90% of senior civil servants will be upskilled on digital and data essentials, with learning embedded into performance and development standards”.
The minister says that she will shortly join in with “one of the masterclasses that the senior civil servants are going to over the summer and try and learn a bit more”.
'Blackpool and Birmingham'
Wheeler’s appointment at the Cabinet Office – which made her the 12th different minister to oversee digital government in less than seven years – was her first ministerial posting since February 2020. She has previously held junior roles in the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and has also been a government whip and assistant whip – the latter role she maintains alongside the digital government brief.
She was first elected as the Conservative MP for South Derbyshire in the 2010 general election, prior to which she served as a local councillor in the London borough of Wandsworth and then in South Derbyshire – where she became leader of the council in 2007.
Earlier in her career she worked in the insurance industry, and was specialised in professional indemnity insurance.
Since joining parliament, Wheeler has several times attracted criticism for causing offence with public remarks, including for tweets published during the Rio Olympics containing a representation of a medal table featuring “the British Empire” as a single entity.
In 2019, while she was homelessness minister, she referred to rough sleepers in her constituency as “the traditional type, old tinkers, knife-cutters wandering through”.
She later apologised for using “inappropriate language” that was “not at all representative of the great cultural contribution and rich heritage that the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities make to this country”.
Another apology was forthcoming after last week's event.
Shortly before launching into the content of her opening speech, the minister told a brief anecdote about a previous presentation she had recently given at a conference in “Blackpool or Birmingham – or somewhere godawful”. The remarks, which were tweeted about contemporaneously by another journalist in attendance, have since attracted criticism from fellow MPs and local government representatives – as well as the offer of an all-expenses-paid holiday to the either destination, courtesy of an online travel retailer.
“Whilst speaking at a conference on Thursday, I made an inappropriate remark that does not reflect my actual view,” Wheeler subsequently said. “I apologise for any offence caused.”
The means through which this apology was issued – namely Twitter – is perhaps further evidence of the minister’s burgeoning technological skills and enthusiasm, which she says many of her government colleagues already possessed in abundance. She claims that ministers and senior officials are all supportive of the new strategy, which includes commitments to improve citizen services, increase skills across departments, and enable better sharing and use of data.
"This has been… [not just about] about transforming civil service: it has been about transforming minister Wheeler! But it’s been a joy – it's been an absolute joy.”
“Let's not beat about the bush: I'm not the youngest minister in the government,” Wheeler says. “And the beauty is that the younger ministers really get this – so they don’t need the kicking and screaming that [my team] has had to put up with. But the point is: we’ve got me over the line, and I am there now. I was appointed on February 14, which was a joyous day, and here we are in June – and I've got it. And it's an absolute pleasure to do this; I'm working with some amazing professionals, and what was so at this event was that there were all these people from all the different departments – you could feel how excited they were, how they really want this to work. And we do too.”
She adds: “Ministers have absolutely signed up to this. And, as it happens, there haven't been any recalcitrant perm secs [either], trying to shove this in the bin somewhere behind a cupboard – none of that's happened this time round. And the enthusiasm from the ministers is absolutely big.”
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