Francis Maude: civil servants thought Government Digital Service were "weird hippies"

Written by Rebecca Hill on 27 July 2016 in News

Former minister for the Cabinet Office also tells the Centre for Public Impact that he regrets not doing more to iron out civil servants' frustrations with technology

Civil servants treated the Government Digital Service with suspicion when it was first set up, Former Cabinet Office minister Lord Francis Maude has admitted.

Maude left the Cabinet Office post last year, after five years in which he presided over wide-ranging, and sometimes controversial, reforms to the civil service.

In an interview released this week, the Tory peer said he believed better technology for officials could have helped to improve morale at a time of sweeping change.

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“All this time we were asking them to do really difficult stuff and giving them rubbish IT to work on; worse than you’d have at home,” he told the Centre for Public Impact in a new podcast

The central Government Digital Service (GDS) team was set up under Maude in 2011, in a bid to improve the government's online services and help departments strike better deals with big IT suppliers by combining their purchasing power. But the former Cabinet Office minister admitted that it took a long time for the wider civil service to see the value of the GDS.

“A lot of people in Whitehall thought, ‘Why has Francis brought all these weird hippies into government?’,” he said.

“That’s why it was so important to just do some stuff and show that actually these are really serious, capable people with huge standing in the industry. It’s just a different world from the world in which government IT had operated – a world that was cheaper, quicker, better, more flexible, more adaptable and more capable of doing what the citizen wants.”

Maude told the CPI that perceptions of the unit could have been changed if it had done more to revamp IT systems used by officials themselves. “Then the civil service would have said, ‘Well these weird hippies have suddenly produced some IT I can work with’.”

"Shonky services"

Meanwhile Mike Bracken, the former head of GDS told the CPI that that if he could relive his time in government, he would have worked harder to improve the internal software used for activities like procurement.

“What we ended up creating was extremely good and valuable services for 60-odd million people,” he said. “But [Whitehall] still had to work on pretty shonky services […] and we would have got so much good will had we done that.”

Since Bracken's departure, GDS has set up a dedicated common technology services unit, specifically focused on improving the IT used by civil servants.

Both men portrayed the push to digital as something that had initially caused confusion, with Bracken saying that there was a sense that the GDS team was “not quite taken seriously”.

But he said GDS had sought to battle resistance to some of its iniativies, by “moving quicker so they never knew what we were up to”.

Maude echoed this sentiment, saying that there was “war of movement” within the civil service around digital transformation.

“Don’t get into entrenched positions,” he said. “You’re constantly on the move, move onto the next thing before people know what’s happening.”

He added: “Mike's mantra was ‘strategy is delivery - get on and do it'. My mantra was ‘JFDI – just do it’.”

Author Display Name
Rebecca Hill
About the author

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

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Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted on 28 July, 2016 - 13:53
To be honest, I don't really care what this Chomley-Warner 50s throwback thinks about anything, anymore. His reign was a blight on the civil service as they're already going back on his promises of a 'one time only' renegotiation. No trust.

RW (not verified)

Submitted on 28 July, 2016 - 14:47
" My mantra was ‘JFDI – just do it’.” So there we have the truth of what Maude wanted: don't get bogged down with evidence and appraisal; don't keep records - that way the NAO can't audit you; don't worry about the details of the law - being businesslike means ignoring the law when there's buggerall chance of being caught. GDS sure delivered.

Dilligaf (not verified)

Submitted on 2 August, 2016 - 17:00
Who cares what Francis Maude thinks? This man imposed the divisive, unwieldy and hated PMR system on the Civil Service. The fact that departments are now starting to rethink their position on PMR, now that Maude has gone, speaks volumes about how much credibility his ideas had.

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