Government Digital Service chief: We’re trying to lose our “arrogant” image

Written by Rebecca Hill on 29 June 2016 in Interview

“When we are concerned about a service, we have learnt to have a much better discussion about how that could be improved," says GDS chief operating officer Alex Holmes

The Government Digital Service is learning to be more empathetic and humble, according to its chief operating officer Alex Holmes.

Speaking to CSW’s sister site PublicTechnology, Holmes acknowledged past frictions between GDS and the rest of the civil service, but said the Cabinet Office-based digital transformation service was now “moving back the dial”.

“We have to remember that no one is setting out to do a bad job,” he said. “If you have an organisation [like GDS] in the centre, that isn’t at the frontline, it’s too easy to say ‘You should do it like this’. We need to empathise more.”

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GDS was formed in 2011 in a bid to sharpen the government’s approach to digital — but it has ruffled some feathers in departments that haven’t always appreciated interventions from the centre of government. 

However, Holmes stressed that the organisation is “trying to move away from the arrogance” it had in its early years.

He said that it had taken on board feedback about the way it interacts with other departments.

“When we are concerned about a service, we have learnt to have a much better discussion about how that could be improved. I would like to think departments are finding that more helpful.”

But this doesn’t mean it will stop putting pressure on departments when needed, he added. “Part of our role is to keep pushing departments to collaborate because they’re incentivised not to do that.”

Emphasising his organisation’s collaborative approach, Holmes said GDS has plenty to learn from local government, too.

“We recognise that a lot of local authorities are small and it’s hard for them to have dedicated capability,” he says. “We can learn from them, because there are also small organisations in central government and it’s [about] asking how we do that.”

Culture shift

At the same time, GDS is moving away from being solely a delivery organisation, with the service looking at helping central government embrace digital and technological functions more broadly.

Most people in the civil service are aware of the GDS way of working, but Holmes — who has been in the civil service for about a decade — said that there had been a noticeable shift in culture across Whitehall during that time.

“There are pockets of people, most of whom aren’t actually digital, but who feel that as civil servants they’re getting a voice and being empowered,” he said. “You’ve got Jeremy Heywood retweeting personal blogs about leadership in the civil service…that’s a very internet-era thing to be doing.”

“We haven’t done a good enough job in explaining Government-as-a-Platform" - Alex Holmes, GDS

But despite Holmes’ assertions that there has been a shift in attitudes towards digital, awareness remains low, with one recent survey showing that almost three-quarters of civil servants hadn’t heard of or don’t understand the concept of Government-as-a-Platform.

“We haven’t done a good enough job in explaining it,” Holmes admitted. “Even in our own organisation, there’s a programme called Government as a Platform, which is about building common components and platforms, but there’s also a broader concept, which is to make it easy for departments to build common services.”

He said he hoped the confusion can be addressed when the government’s long-awaited digital strategy emerges. 

Holmes — who was speaking to PublicTechnology before the EU referendum result, which could delay the strategy further — said that GDS wants it to be published “soon”.

Once that is out in the open, he said, GDS will publish its own business plan. “We want to make sure it fits with the strategy and adjust it accordingly. What I can say, though, is things haven’t stopped while we wait for it.”

Holmes said that all of the GDS team’s comments in recent months mirror what the organisation’s strategy will say, although he wouldn’t be drawn on the details or timeline.

However, he said that the next six months will see more of the Government-as-a-Platform services “being made properly live”, with more work on registers used by the Common Technology Service.

“This might not be important as a user of public services, but it’s massively important as a civil servant, as a taxpayer,” he said, “because I think that’s where we’ll save tonnes of money.”

Civil servants as users

The idea of working to improve government’s digital services with civil servants – not just the public – in mind is also prompting GDS to adapt how it does its user research.

Holmes pointed out that, for many services, the users are the people in departments, not citizens, and they are the ones that need to be surveyed.

He added that GDS also plans to do more user research on HR and finance policies — and approach he said surprises other chief operating officers. 

“I say we have user research, and develop ideas that we get rid of quickly if they don’t work, as we would with services,” Holmes said. “They haven’t been exposed to that, or been shown the methodology to apply that.”

But it’s also a work in progress, with Holmes saying that the hit rate of good ideas isn’t as high as he’d like.

Meanwhile, Holmes said, the organisation is continuing to grow, and working on developing a more diverse workforce. But 75% of GDS’s 600 staff are civil servants, bound by Cabinet Office pay caps. How does that affect the digital service’s ability to attract and retain talent?

“We know we can’t pay the most,” he said, “but we tap into what’s great about the civil service: we have a really strong sense of mission – helping departments transform their services.”

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Rebecca Hill
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Rebecca Hill is online editor of CSW's dedicated sister site for public sector tech and digital professionals,

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