One year after publishing a transformation strategy, the Cabinet Office is indeed transformed. The minister who launched it, Ben Gummer, has been cast out into the political wilderness. The team who wrote it, the Government Digital Service (GDS), could be heading the same way.
People, prestige and power remain in GDS. There are plenty in Whitehall who covet the value of what’s in Aldgate East, and not just the well-stocked bar in the lobby. GDS is vulnerable. It hasn’t been clear what exactly the digital team’s mission is for some time. The vultures are circling after what politicians, the media and GDS’ own staff are saying is a breakdown in leadership.
The Transformation Strategy has not lived long in the memory. It was a paper full of what I learned to call “doing words”; ones that finish with “ing”. One senior official has privately described GDS’ recent strategy as “gerunding”. He went to a better school than me.
The problem with any strategy comprised of doing words is that it is never done. Sections of the press that have given GDS the benefit of the doubt are growing more concerned and impatient. Senior politicians are beginning to ask pointed questions. In an article for The Times last month, Ed Vaizey – culture minister for six years – said “the saddest thing for me is the apparent demise of digital government.” Given how much there is to be sad about in this administration, this is quite a statement.
The official rebuttal to this is clear. Any ebbing of GDS’ grip does not represent the decline of digital government, so much as the evolution of it. There is truth in this. The flow of power between centre and departments is a cyclical dance. The pendulum was bound to swing back. Stories abound of fragile but significant digital successes in several departments, from DfE to DWP to Defra. None of this should be dismissed. There is no question that the civil service is in a much stronger position on digital than it was six years ago. Some of the work going on in government, including the teams in GDS building digital platforms, remains world-leading.
Yet there seems to be a growing sense that this good work is happening despite the centre’s leadership, rather than as a result of it. GDS’ own Civil Service People Survey results reflect this view. Compared against high performing teams, GDS was 26 points adrift on “leadership and managing change”, and 36 behind on “objectives and purpose”.
Officials working on digital programmes in other departments describe the GDS team as well-meaning but increasingly peripheral
John Manzoni gave a speech at the LSE late last month setting out his views on Whitehall’s future and boasting about the government’s digital record. As for what’s coming, Mr Manzoni explained that we should prepare for something called Robotic Process Automation (RPA). If RPA sounds like an acronym a consultant might have come up with, there are some other clues about its parentage. Type ‘robotic process automation’ into Google and several well-known names feature on the first page of results. The appealing thing about robots is they’re very good at repetitive tasks, like papering over cracks.
RPA achieves two things. Applying lipstick to disguise the ugliest parts of poorly-designed online services, and showing quick payback in technology investment business cases. Trebles all round then, except for the poor saps who end up using services that confuse and delay.
In the wrong hands, RPA risks becoming the opposite of the user-led, service design approach long mandated by GDS and now copied around the world. If you think that technology alone can solve the government’s service problems, then you don’t understand the problems and you don’t understand the technology.
Digital government’s strategic drift in recent times has translated down into what’s seen on the ground. Officials working on digital programmes in other departments describe the GDS team as well-meaning but increasingly peripheral. Harsher words are reserved for the senior management. This dislocation of the centre is no reflection on many of the people who still work in the digital unit. Despite bleeding skills elsewhere, GDS has not experienced a terminal brain drain. Many of those who have stayed are doing a heroic job in trying circumstances.
Those with an eye for Whitehall asset-stripping have their ears pricked. The talent that remains is a valuable prize. GDS’ policy reach and brand is attractive to empire builders too. There are several Whitehall islands who could make credible arguments for snatching away parts of the territory.
The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is leading that race. It now looks all but certain the department will grab responsibility for data from GDS.
Given a choice of addressing the leadership challenges or rearranging the deckchairs, the government has ducked the former and picked the latter
DCMS could use the boost, after its minister’s own “Matt Hancock app” sparked widespread hilarity and questions from the data protection watchdog last week. Delivery of the government’s “superfast” broadband promise sounds impressive, but it is cheeky given all but 3% of homes still rely on copper wire – the 19th century’s disruptive technology – for the last few yards to their home. Still, some good news, according to Akamai – UK connection speeds are now only two places behind Romania on the global rankings.
What this latest deckchair shuffle would do to the coherence of Cabinet Office strategy, or indeed their ownership of a cross-government “Digital, Data and Technology” function, is anyone’s guess. Handing data over to a small, policy-led department like DCMS is equally odd. Getting data right is both difficult and fundamental to digital delivery, something DCMS has no reputation for. Handing back digital responsibility to Hancock, a minister who was relieved of his job after one failed go at running GDS, seems unwise.
Replacing a weakened centre with diffuse departmental effort is a mistake, because it strips a critical function out of government. The point of GDS was to have a single team that could act as the voice of users for government as a whole. To do that well, it needed a mandate covering data as well as design, operations and technology. It also had to have a clear mission. Increasingly, it has neither of these. The departmental shape of government gives no incentive for any non-central department to step in. It is a great shame that the two most well-placed advocates for an effective centre – the Treasury and Sir Jeremy Heywood – have proved unable or unwilling to stop the rot.
Instead, given a choice of addressing the leadership challenges or rearranging the deckchairs, the government has ducked the former and picked the latter. This is a mistake.
The dismembering of GDS is underway.