Andrew Greenway: How GDS conquered the world
The UK government blazed a trail on digital innovation, but others are catching up fast and it would be all too easy to squander the advantage of earlier work
Digital and Technology Fast Streamers working at GDS. Photo: GDS/flickr
The civil service is an exporter of ideas. The tendrils of deliverology cross continents, while the echoes of Green Book-inspired analytical theatrics can be seen in a thousand investment cases around the world, were anyone to actually read them. Digital transformation is now on that list. This cross-pollination is often helped along by civil servants turned consultants. I’m one of them, so feel free to disregard all that follows as the shilling of a shameless mercenary if you like.
Taking the global view, the UK still has plenty to be proud of when it comes to all things digital. The history of the Government Digital Service – and ex-PM David Cameron’s boast of it being a “great unsung triumph” of his administration – still carries weight. We have managed not to have a spectacular IT cock-up for a while. Teams working on things like the GOV.UK Notify platform and Design System are besieged by other governments who want to borrow from their lead. The Canadian and Australian governments have both adopted a version of Notify. I expect queues will soon be forming at the door of the NHS team currently doing a heroic job of coordinating the online response to Covid-19. There are product teams in the UK still delivering world-class work.
What made the UK a model that others wanted to copy is a question with many answers, but you could boil it down to two things: a series of smart teams built really good things, and they did so in the open. This made it palpably evident to other governments that there were things the UK has done well, and easy for them to piggyback on their efforts. This is a transaction that involved little traditional diplomacy, no trade trips, no strategy documents, no memoranda of understanding. Instead, it involved some civil servants, some contractors, political capital, new ways of working, and lot of hard yards. Not complicated, just difficult.
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If the UK wished to squander this advantage fast, it would be very easy for the current administration to do so. It would need to stop getting multidisciplinary teams to build and run good services, and busily rebuild all Whitehall’s usual barriers to communication – within and without. Close the GitHub repos, shutter the blogs, turn off Slack, turn on Microsoft Teams, let communities of practice wither, and plead commercial confidentiality for any supplier dealings.
With a serious technophile pulling the strings in No.10, this full-on harakiri seems relatively unlikely. More possible – not least because, contrary to popular belief, Dom can’t be everywhere all the time – is that the conditions required for such teams to thrive in the civil service are further eroded. The much-remarked-upon decline in GDS’s influence has not coincided with a diminishing of resources. It follows a diminishing of political and official power, focus and boldness. Without leadership, delivery teams lose their shit umbrella. You really need that umbrella. Whitehall has never been stormier.
Meanwhile, outside the UK, power, focus and boldness is being applied to the digital agenda in seemingly ever-greater supply. Countries from Madagascar to Vietnam are concluding digital must be high on the political agenda if they are not to fall behind the pack. When the right stars align, economies with little legacy can move very far, very fast. Peru knocked up its beta equivalent to GOV.UK in 3 months. Argentina’s digital driving licence was built in 65 days and can be used in multiple countries.
In the UK, we have a lot of legacy. Stand still, and we’ll find ourselves leapfrogged. If that happens, we can look forward to the ex-civil servant mercenaries coming to our shores.
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