The government has achieved “just about everything” that was in its first digital strategy and now needs a different approach to make bigger savings, the director general of the Government Digital Service has said.
Speaking exclusively to CSW's sister site PublicTechnology after the publication of the government’s transformation strategy, Kevin Cunnington said that the new document marks a natural evolution of the work and role of GDS.
The government’s first digital strategy was published in 2012 under the leadership of founding GDS director Mike Bracken and set out an ambitious plan for making public services digital by default.
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The new rules and standards it ushered in came as a culture shock to many Whitehall departments, and since the departure of Bracken and many of the founding team, the new leadership has been accused of “watering-down” this commitment to digital transformation.
However, Cunnington hit back at the criticisms, saying that he “wouldn’t agree with any of it”.
He said that GDS was “on track to finish Mike’s strategy”, with the latest analysis saying suggesting that the government was “about halfway through” that strategy last year, and would have around 122 digital front-end, citizen-facing services online by 2020.
“That pretty much covers the entire waterfront of government’s interaction with the citizen,” Cunnington said. “And you realise: Mike’s strategy really has come good. Just about everything he wanted us to achieve as digital by default has happened.”
Cunnington said that the government had been “sufficiently successful, to a point where we now feel we can have a really good go at the hard stuff we weren’t able to do at the start of the journey”.
This has necessitated a change in approach, he said, and the new strategy – which has had ‘digital’ removed from the title to indicate the broader challenges it is attempting to address – is part of this.
“The new strategy says that in order to save the big money, systems have got to work together more closely. It’s naturally the way things have evolved,” said Cunnington
“The big savings aren’t singular systems from a department, but from leveraging the operational efficiency of departments sharing data. And in order for departments to collaborate to share data, GDS has got to collaborate with departments to share data.”
‘Digital Che Guevara’
This much-touted collaborative approach was also emphasised by minister for the Cabinet Office Ben Gummer at the strategy’s launch, who described Cunnington as “the modern day Che Guevara of digital”.
Gummer said: “It was right that GDS was an insurgent to start with – look at the effect it’s had as a result of doing that. But every insurgent at some point needs to assume rulership and take on the responsibilities of statehood.
“So Kevin is this modern day Che Guevara of digital, and has to have a relationship with his colleagues which is different.”
Gummer added that the departments “understood” that too, saying that the relationship between GDS and the rest of Whitehall was “genuinely positive now”.
As an example of the better relationships already being established, Gummer said there were now regular meetings between GDS and the Department for Work and Pensions – one of the departments that, along with HMRC, has been most reticent about working closely with GDS.
“The nature of that discussion is one of a shared goal that people in the room felt would be impossible a few years ago,” Gummer said.