Civil servants treated the Government Digital Service with suspicion when it was first set up, Former Cabinet Office minister Lord Francis Maude has admitted.
Maude left the Cabinet Office post last year, after five years in which he presided over wide-ranging, and sometimes controversial, reforms to the civil service.
In an interview released this week, the Tory peer said he believed better technology for officials could have helped to improve morale at a time of sweeping change.
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“All this time we were asking them to do really difficult stuff and giving them rubbish IT to work on; worse than you’d have at home,” he told the Centre for Public Impact in a new podcast.
The central Government Digital Service (GDS) team was set up under Maude in 2011, in a bid to improve the government's online services and help departments strike better deals with big IT suppliers by combining their purchasing power. But the former Cabinet Office minister admitted that it took a long time for the wider civil service to see the value of the GDS.
“A lot of people in Whitehall thought, ‘Why has Francis brought all these weird hippies into government?’,” he said.
“That’s why it was so important to just do some stuff and show that actually these are really serious, capable people with huge standing in the industry. It’s just a different world from the world in which government IT had operated – a world that was cheaper, quicker, better, more flexible, more adaptable and more capable of doing what the citizen wants.”
Maude told the CPI that perceptions of the unit could have been changed if it had done more to revamp IT systems used by officials themselves. “Then the civil service would have said, ‘Well these weird hippies have suddenly produced some IT I can work with’.”
Meanwhile Mike Bracken, the former head of GDS told the CPI that that if he could relive his time in government, he would have worked harder to improve the internal software used for activities like procurement.
“What we ended up creating was extremely good and valuable services for 60-odd million people,” he said. “But [Whitehall] still had to work on pretty shonky services […] and we would have got so much good will had we done that.”
Since Bracken's departure, GDS has set up a dedicated common technology services unit, specifically focused on improving the IT used by civil servants.
Both men portrayed the push to digital as something that had initially caused confusion, with Bracken saying that there was a sense that the GDS team was “not quite taken seriously”.
But he said GDS had sought to battle resistance to some of its iniativies, by “moving quicker so they never knew what we were up to”.
Maude echoed this sentiment, saying that there was “war of movement” within the civil service around digital transformation.
“Don’t get into entrenched positions,” he said. “You’re constantly on the move, move onto the next thing before people know what’s happening.”
He added: “Mike's mantra was ‘strategy is delivery - get on and do it'. My mantra was ‘JFDI – just do it’.”