Why the Government Digital Service needs to rediscover its killer instincts

Written by Joshua Chambers on 5 April 2016 in Opinion

GDS has been a game-changer for the UK. But Joshua Chambers asks whether the big fish will survive without finding fresh feeding grounds

As Woody Allen once noted, a shark “has to constantly move forwards, otherwise it dies”. The Government Digital Service risks becoming a dead shark.

It had clear objectives when it was formed, following the recommendations of then-UK digital champion Martha Lane Fox. Her 2010 review advised ministers to “change radically” online publishing, and take “absolute control of the overall user experience”.  GDS was also expected to “force departments” to improve transaction services, and urged to have “sharp teeth”.

This achieved big results, but its forceful approach caused problems. Some high profile projects crept close to internecine warfare.

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Many government bodies have now adapted by setting up their own digital teams. Force is no longer necessary. This has left the GDS looking more like an in-house supplier, supporting agencies and building software for them.

That model is similar to the approach taken by other services around the world. For example, the US Digital Service and its partner body 18F often talk of their collaborative approach – working with agencies by request. 

New Zealand does this too. On transactions, its mission is to “measure” departmental performance and set “shared goals” with agencies.

“GDS must reinvent itself with another moonshot mission that changes government delivery, just as it changed online publishing”

Australia has just launched its new digital unit, with many team members joining from the UK’s GDS. They are a talented bunch, but – like in the US – they will have to work across strong silos. Equally, the country has already shown its prowess in e-government and has implemented some effective digital services, according to UN rankings. With an election approaching, there is less scope to upset the apple cart.

In Asia digital teams have more limited roles, simply building apps or providing consultancy on agile project management and the design of online forms. 

Certainly these countries are all making improvements, relative to their own existing digital services. But none have shown the way forward, as the GDS did when it was formed and then copied.

The GDS is following a set pattern for central units. Michael Barber’s book, How to Run a Government, notes that they start as flavour of the month, seeing steady growth in size and budget, and having an impact on public debate. 

The next steps, however, are permanence, loss of impact, and abolition or merger. GDS is currently at the permanence stage, and risks losing impact. It must reinvent itself, with another moonshot mission that changes government delivery, just as it changed online publishing.

The key is moving past digital. The next phase is robotics, sensors, 3D printing, financial technology and artificial intelligence. These all have huge potential, but only if a government shows what’s possible.

South Korea, for example, is spending £42m to build emergency robots that will be dropped by drones into large fires. The city of Seoul alone is spending £261m over five years to build digital services that use data from sensors and the Internet of Things.

Singapore too, could be a model for GDS. It has just announced plans to create a new organisation, the Government Technology Agency, bringing digital services together with the industrial internet, robotics, AI and underlying big data systems.  

This could provide a template for a new Government Technology Service – a team that moves the needle by combining digital with the next wave of innovation. There are plenty of services that can be disrupted by using cutting-edge technology, and the unit could be tasked with achieving big objectives in health, transport or service delivery, trialling any type of tech that will help get there.

Back when the GDS was launched, it had a focused mission. Now, its purpose is not so clear. “Government as a Platform” is a worthwhile exercise, but it’s an implementation challenge. The original GDS was challenged to innovate relentlessly and show the world how much better government could be.

Sharks exist to hunt down and tear up the weak. They are not collaborators, they are powerful predators. They are to be admired, not tamed. GDS should be given a new challenge and set free. Once again, it can lead the way.

Author Display Name
Joshua Chambers
About the author

Joshua Chambers is founder of Asia Pacific public sector innovation monitor GovInsider and former deputy editor of CSW

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Nick S (not verified)

Submitted on 5 April, 2016 - 10:52
Not sure I agree with your assertion that the only way forward for GDS is into tech rather than getting digital right - there's a risk of just doing 'pretty' things (such as your example of firefighting robots which are quite frankly a gimmick , or at very best an extremely niche product)... GDS could (very) usefully use its 'shark' presence to push departments into implementing modern IT (much of HMG IT is still pretty antiquated outside Cabinet Office) in real-world timescales (ie this year's tech this year!) and actually getting the job done with regard to helping departments implement effective open policy making tools, real use and sharing of data (a VERY long way to go still), among others. These don't sound flashy and won't make great photos to go on GDS staff online CVs, but they'll do a massive amount more to bring the Civil Service and the UK into the modern world than firefighting robots (and ironically, probably save more lives in the long run!).

Josh (not verified)

Submitted on 12 April, 2016 - 13:57
It's a fair point about the risk of just building gimmicks. Disagree with your point on South Korea - the robots can go to areas where humans can't (the heat of the fire), and move beams and structural obstacles. But do have a concern about a lack of vision. Gov Tech Service is at least something. Hope there'll be a genuine mission statement and fiery purpose soon.

Charles McDowall (not verified)

Submitted on 6 April, 2016 - 12:38
So the GDS needs to provide a shark edged bid for the Land Registry and prove that it really can achieve transformation like no one else. And the 'service managers' problems (SEE GDS BLOG) highlight 'stuff' that needs marching through. IF THERE IS ONE THING that we need across every department of government is effective workflow managed approvals systems...Actually, what I am saying is, service delivery to the taxpayer interface is obvious and moves MPs' maiboxes BUT it does not do anything for the internal machinations of Departments of State which need just as much revolutionary improvement.

KK (not verified)

Submitted on 6 April, 2016 - 20:45
Thanks for the article. But in my experience GDS are increasingly becoming rampant self publicists rather than delivering any real or lasting improvements. Fatter salaries seems to be the real aim here and by being ever more bombastic, thrusting and forever ahead of the curve seems (whatever that tosh means). Clearly more like another cuckoo in the nest rather than a shark or more helpfully constructive agent of change in my view. Just get on and deliver something real rather than extolling how such great thinkers you all are...

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