Interview: Whitehall tech pioneer Tony Singleton on two decades at the forefront of digital government
After calling time on a long civil-service career earlier this year, the former Directgov and GDS leader discusses how digital government has evolved during the 20 years he spent as one of its leading advocates
“I think it is getting there,” says Tony Singleton, when asked how much headway Whitehall has made in becoming a digital government. “Something like registering your own company is now very, very easy to do. When I did it recently it only cost me £12 and took half an hour. And there are some other really good examples out there.”
Singleton is surely in as good a position as anyone to comment on the progress. He was there at the commencement of the journey almost two decades ago, and has been a key figure in helping set the direction of travel since until earlier this year, when he called time on his 35-year career in the civil service.
Published in March 1999, the Modernising Government whitepaper sets out an ambitious concept for the “information-age government”, including “a new target of all dealings with government being deliverable electronically by 2008”. Tony Blair, whose foreword is accompanied by a youthful headshot containing not one grey hair, presented to parliament the document’s vision for a government that “will use new technology to meet the needs of citizens and business, and not trail behind technological developments”.
Since then there have been five elections, three incoming prime ministers, hundreds of new cabinet members, and tens of thousands of personnel changes within Whitehall. But a lot of the language in the 18-year-old whitepaper will sound awfully familiar to anyone who still tracks the government digital sector.
Singleton, who helped author the document, says: “Modernising Government had the original e-government vision in it. But, at the time, digital was not understood at all. People thought it was about sending PDFs.”
It was the right time to get away from the bureaucracy of the civil service and work on short-term transformational things that would make a big difference
Undeterred, Singleton led a team whose job it was to develop and deliver policy that would help make the notion of e-government a reality. A key development in this work was the launch of the Directgov platform in 2004. Singleton served the programme for its entire eight-year lifespan, first as deputy programme director, then as chief operating officer.
Directgov may have put a wealth of government information online, but it was dispersed and disordered. The next stage was to unite that information in one place, and use it to build transactional services.
This was the remit of GOV.UK when it replaced Directgov in 2012. The new platform was created by the nascent Government Digital Service which, once again, Singleton had helped to set up, before serving as its chief operating officer.
“GOV.UK really was a world first, in so far as it was delivering digital citizen-based services all in one place. That had never been done before. We worked with departments in delivering that,” he says. “A user did not always know they were on a Directgov site, and one of the big things that GOV.UK did was the branding. With GOV.UK there is a very clear, crisp-looking design. We had a major stripping out of content, and we were working only with the content that people needed.”
Around the same time as GOV.UK went live, the government also launched the first iteration of the G-Cloud framework. The contract allowed suppliers to sell commodity cloud applications to the government through first the CloudStore, then its successor the Digital Marketplace.
At the last count, in the five years since its launch £2.6bn had been spent via G-Cloud, with £1.2bn – or £1.39 in every £3 – of this going to SMEs. But adoption took time, Singleton tells PublicTechnology, with the simplicity of the process occasioning, for some, doubts about its security.
Publication date of the Modernising Government whitepaper, which laid out a vision for the ‘information age government’
Launch of Directgov, which gathered together all central government information in one place
The organisation that would become the Government Digital Service came into being, and began work on a successor to Directgov
GOV.UK launches in beta, having united hundreds of Directgov sites in one place
The first iteration of the G-Cloud is begins selling services through the CloudStore
“When we came out with the Digital Marketplace, we made sure that it reached the service standard, and part of that was that you need to get your minister to use the service,” he says.
“We asked Francis Maude to go through and find a hosting service. When it took him only two or three minutes he said: ‘is that it?’. If you look at the complex world of government procurement, people were apprehensive. There was always that perception that it cannot be safe [because it is so simple].”
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By the time Singleton moved on from GDS in 2016, other key figures who had helped build the organisation and shape its purpose and culture had already departed. A few months after he left Kevin Cunnington moved from the Department for Work and Pensions to take over as director general of a GDS that, nowadays, seems less intent on being disruptive at all costs than in its early years.
“There has been a change in focus from doing what absolutely needed to be done under Francis Maude and Mike Bracken, to being where GDS is now working out ‘how do we work with the government departments?’,” Singleton says. “The Digital Academy that Kevin brought across from the DWP is very important. There is a skills shortage, and departments are competing for the same people.”
He adds: “I think GDS is evolving to where it needs to be by continuing to develop the Government as a Platform product.”
After leaving GDS, Singleton spent nine months at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy serving as chief operating officer for its digital, data, technology function. He then spent seven months leading the project to establish the Department for Education’s Institute for Apprenticeships (IFA).
He decided earlier this year that, after 35 years of service, the time had come to call an end to his career as a civil servant. Singleton has now set up his own business – Silverhawk Consultancy.
Although some of its business will come from commercial clients, the former GDS man says that he is still keen to help out Whitehall with one-off transformation projects in a similar vein to his last role getting the IFA off the ground.
Government CTO Liam Maxwell announces a radical simplification of governance models for IT procurement and management across government, as GDS publishes its Service Standard and Service Design Manual documents
Digital Marketplace is launched, replacing CloudStore
GDS unveils its Government as a Platform project, which has since created services including Notify, Pay, and Verify
Autumn statement provides a surprise £450m funding boost for GDS
Kevin Cunnington is appointed as director general of GDS. The Digital Academy he had previously run at the DWP becomes part of GDS soon afterwards
“I set up my own consultancy, and part of it is on the commercial side, helping SMEs [work with government], but part of it is programme management,” he says. “I am interested in going in and running major projects, working hand in glove with the team.”
Singleton adds: “Just before I left the institute [in July], I was offered a full-time role – but I had already stated that now was the right time to get away from the bureaucracy of working in the civil service, and the public sector, and to work on short-term transformational things that would make a big difference, rather than the two- to three-year projects. But it is not just about saying ‘now I can leave the civil service and go off and make my fortune’. If I do not believe that I could add value, I will always tell the client.”
When asked to pick one highlight of his three and a half decades in Whitehall, Singleton does not hesitate to name the OBE he received in 2014, “for services to the provision and improvement of digital public services”.
But this was just one among many, he adds.
“I would recommend the civil service to anyone – it is an absolutely fantastic place to work,” Singleton says. “It is so many careers in one – finance, management, procurement, digital.
“There is nowhere else I can think of where I would have got those opportunities.”
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