Dismantling GDS would be a "black day", says Francis Maude, as UK tops digital rankings

Exclusive: Former Cabinet Office minister says nothing should be done to weaken the "central authority" of the Government Digital Service, as the United Nations' latest e-government index has Britain at the top for the first time

By Suzannah Brecknell

03 Aug 2016

Former Cabinet Office minister Lord Francis Maude has urged the civil service not to undermine the work of the Government Digital Service (GDS), as a new United Nations report ranked the UK the top of its e-government index.

Maude, who launched GDS as the central authority for government digital in 2011, told CSW that the UK’s top rating was “great news”, reflecting hard work over a number of years.

And he said Britain had come a long way from a time when it was "notorious round the world for failed government IT projects", describing GDS as "central to that journey and to Britain’s success as a digital nation".

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The former Cabinet Office minister said recent personnel changes at the GDS should not undermine that work, despite the fact that departments could sometimes "resent any infringement of their autonomy".

"Early adoption"

The UN’s E-government index awards countries scores in a number of areas including online service delivery, e-participation and transparency. These scores are then put together to create an overall ranking.
The UK scores most highly in the service delivery index, and the latest report says the country “scored well in all areas and stages of online service delivery.”

“[The UK’s] early adoption of e-government and the considerable evolution since, including many course corrections to integrate lessons learned, contributed to  this achievement,” says the report.

It also notes that the creation of a cross-government council of chief information officers and the Cabinet Office’s e-government unit have fostered a “whole-of-government approach in online service delivery, where services are available in a more integrated fashion from various departments; local and central governments".

“It is crucially important that whatever the personnel changes at GDS nothing is done to weaken that central authority" – Lord Maude

The report was published as a new leadership structure was announced at GDS. Stephen Foreshew-Cain, who was appointed executive director of the unit last year, left this week and will be replaced by Kevin Cunnington, formerly the digital chief of the Department for Work and Pensions.

Some, including Labour’s Tom Watson, and former Cabinet Office digital official Andrew Greenway, have interpreted the shake up at GDS as a move against the centralised model championed by Maude.

Reflecting on the role of the GDS, the former Cabinet Office minister, who now sits as a Conservative peer in the House of Lords, told CSW: “It is notable that both the Obama administration and the Australian government took GDS as their model for their own digital transformation. Both understand that a central repository of  expertise, together with a strong central mandate over departments and  agencies, is essential for success.

He added: “It is crucially important that whatever the personnel changes at GDS nothing is done to weaken that central authority. 

"In particular cross-government platforms must continue to be designed and co-delivered from the centre, and mandated to be used across all of government except the security community.”

"In the old world of unfettered departmental autonomy Britain lagged far behind our competitors" – Lord Maude

Maude also argued that the IT spend controls operated by GDS remained “a crucial  control mechanism” to ensure all government services adhered to the same standards.

“GDS’ ability to communicate openly both to users and to other civil servants are principles which need strengthening to ensure we remain at the top of [the e-government] table,” he said.

“We’ve always known that a strong and vigorous central GDS is an irritant for departments and agencies, which can resent any infringement of their autonomy. But in the old world of unfettered departmental autonomy Britain lagged far behind our competitors.

“In the new world with a strong central digital authority, now being copied elsewhere, Britain has outstripped the competition. If we dismantle this, it would be a black day both for service users, for taxpayers and for our digital eco-system, which has created and sustains hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

Responding to the UN report, the newly-appointed minister for the Cabinet Office Ben Gummer told CSW:  "We have made great strides but we can go further.

"We will continue the transformation of government services so that we can better serve the public and to continue the global leadership in digital transformation that the Government Digital Service is rightly famed for at home and abroad."

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