Ignore the doom-mongers. The Government Digital Service is evolving, not retreating

The GDS's new leader Kevin Cunnington now has the opportunity to complete the cultural shift from confrontation to collaboration with departments, says digital inclusion specialist Matthew Trimming​

By Matthew Trimming

04 Aug 2016

“We want to usher in a new post-bureaucratic age… to create a massive transfer of power from central government and its agencies to individuals and local communities – David Cameron, 2009

Earlier this week Andrew Greenway wrote an article for CSW in which he declared the latest change in leadership at the Government Digital Service was a “victory for senior officials at the expense of citizens.” Such a conclusion is to misunderstand the evolving role of GDS and to ignore the consistent and persistent support for GDS from senior officials and politicians. 

Under Kevin Cunnington’s leadership, GDS can build on the strong legacy of his predecessors Mike Bracken and Stephen Foreshew-Cain. The future of the Government’s Digital-by-Default agenda is bright.

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In August 2015, following the exit of Mike Bracken from government I wrote the following as part of a blog on the future of GDS:

“Rarely, if ever, has the decision by one Cabinet Office civil servant to leave Whitehall resulted in the spilling of so much ink, both virtual and physical. Twitter was ablaze and the IT trade press full of speculation. The last few weeks has seen an out-pouring of claim and counter-claim as to the reasons for Mike Bracken’s move to the Co-op as Chief Digital Officer after five years of leading the Government Digital Service.

"So, with Mike and a number of his senior team leaving and with the GDS COO, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, stepping up to lead the organisation what is likely to happen to GDS and the Government’s Digital by Default agenda during and post the current Spending Review? To my mind, and despite all the media speculation, the prospects for both are good. GDS has been publicly praised by Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock and by the Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood. 

"In addition, Mike Bracken’s own blog has emphasised John Manzoni’s support for Government as a Platform (GaaP). These statements of political and the most senior official support are essential to the future success of GDS, the digital agenda and its most ambitious manifestation – Government-as-a-Platform.”

What was true in August 2015 remains true one year on, as GDS says farewell to Stephen Foreshew-Cain as its executive director and welcomes Kevin Cunnington as its first director general.

John Manzoni and Heywood are on record this week continuing their support for GDS. David Gauke, the newly appointed chief secretary to the Treasury, in a speech to the highly respected think tank Reform on 21st July, praised the work of GDS and underlined the close working relationship he will have with Ben Gummer, Matt Hancock’s successor as the minister responsible for GDS. Such a close relationship between the Treasury and Cabinet Office bodes well for GDS and will be essential to the continued delivery of the government’s efficiency and Digital-by-Default agendas.

In addition to ongoing senior official and political support, Kevin will inherit the world’s leading e-government brand. Research by the United Nations, published this week, put the UK in first place in its annual e-government Development Index, with France 10th, the USA 12th and Germany 15th. 

Legacy of delivery

Kevin (pictured) will also inherit a legacy of delivery from Mike and Stephen. In just nine short months since Stephen secured GDS a four-year budget of £450m, we have seen tangible progress on Government-as-a-Platform with the launch of three new cross-government digital platforms: Verify, Notify and Pay. Such momentum must be maintained and accelerated under Kevin’s leadership, with a clear delivery plan for 2017.

On top of this inheritance Kevin brings his own track record of digital delivery from DWP and experience of working in concert with GDS at the government’s largest department. This experience is vital to the next stage of GDS’ evolution. 

For all its successes, and there have been many, GDS has at times found it difficult to engage as effectively as it should with some of the larger departments across Whitehall. Both parties have suffered at times from a “them and us” view of digital delivery. Stephen did much to change this. Kevin now has the opportunity to complete this cultural shift from confrontation to collaboration.

Kevin will benefit from strong and growing digital investments by departments including HM Revenue and Customs, DWP, the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in digital delivery skills and other digital assets such as digital labs, focused on creating proof of concepts for new digital services. Some of this work is being driven by ex-GDS senior staff who joined departments to build digital capability and deliver user-centred digital services.

With such a positive digital context and inheritance it is not the time to ask existential questions about the future of GDS. Under Kevin, it should continue to focus on a few strategic areas including Common Technology Services and Government-as-a-Platform. 
Kevin also has the opportunity to reinvigorate GDS’ central role in helping define and drive a genuine data strategy, both in terms of management information and the government’s open data agenda. 

For all its successes, and there have been many, GDS has at times found it difficult to engage as effectively as it should with some of the larger departments across Whitehall. Both parties have suffered at times from a “them and us” view of digital delivery.

Data has remained the poor relation of the government’s work on digital transformation. It is time that it was given equal billing as GaaP and a dedicated, central role of chief data officer re-created. Taken together, these three pillars of an evolved GDS should position it to help departments and agencies respond positively to what the Comprehensive Spending Review described as the “cross-cutting issues such as greater use of big data and digital technologies that will drive the next stage of efficiency and reform across government".

Strategy, standards, processes

As GDS evolves under Kevin will it need to become a bigger central team? For me, the answer is no. In fact, I would argue GDS should have a smaller head-count by 2020 than it does today. My reasoning is, as GDS has and will continue to help establish more and more digital capability within departments, less of the actual digital delivery needs to be done by a central function. 

Increasingly, departments will be the places where digital delivery happens. The role for an evolved GDS should be to provide the strategy, standards, processes and key subject matter experts to assist departments in delivering their parts of the common technology, platform and data strategy. 

Such an evolved organisational design for GDS would see it as a relatively small and wise central team working, in the words of Claire Arnold, chair of the organisational design consultancy Q5, in “active partnership” with departments and their agencies.

In conclusion, I offer the following ten-point action plan for Kevin’s consideration:

1. Confront and dismiss any lingering sense of a “them and us” culture within departments, agencies and GDS.
2. Retain GDS’ top talent.
3. Quickly set out a clear and simple strategy that puts collaboration at its heart.
4. Re-create the central role of chief data officer
5. Governance – whilst each department needs to account to parliament through its accounting office, this is not an excuse for siloed thinking and behaviour. Work with HM Treasury and departments to align incentives so that public money spent on digital projects and programmes deliver the maximum return on Investment for the citizen.
6. Be clear what GDS will build for the citizen and why.
7. Be clear what departments will build in concert with GDS for the citizen and why.
8. Reinvigorate the "One Government at the Border" initiative, and accelerate the DWP-based Payments Out project.
9. Maintain GDS’s central responsibility for service standards and spend controls
10. Work with HM Treasury’s departmental spending leads to better understand how to fund cross-departmental digital projects and programmes.

In conclusion, GDS can continue to be the driving force behind the creation of the government’s vision of a post-bureaucratic State. Its future is bright – if it focuses on a few key themes such as central technology services, Government-as-a-Platform, and data, and if it evolves its role to predominately direct digital delivery across Whitehall rather than doing the bulk of delivery from the centre.

In the word of Mike Bracken, GDS founder – “onwards.”

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