Minister: no backtracking on GDS agenda

Lord Bridges says digital agenda will be top of the list for the civil service's new HR chief – while Labour's Chi Onwurah tries to dig up figures on the scale of recent GDS exits

By Matt Foster

14 Oct 2015

The civil service has "learnt the lessons" taught by the Government Digital Service team, a Cabinet Office minister has said, as Labour sought assurances on the future of the central government unit.

Since its introduction in 2011, GDS has attempted to overhaul the way departments deal with IT suppliers, unify government websites under the GOV.UK domain, and ensure a set of common standards for digital services.

But its insurgent approach has drawn criticism from some in Whitehall, and the recent departure of executive director Mike Bracken and a number of other GDS leaders has fuelled speculation that the team could face a difficult settlement at November's government-wide Spending Review. 

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The future of GDS was brought up in parliament by the Labour peer Lord Knight this week. The former Labour frontbencher – now in charge of online learning at education firm TES Global – said GDS had been "a success thanks to the leadership of Mike Bracken" and former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.

"I wish them well in their new roles," Lord Knight said. "However, I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. Digital successfully implemented is by definition risk-taking and innovative, and the civil service is not famous for embracing risk-taking or innovation.

"What is the government doing to nurture the next generation of political entrepreneurs within departments, across government, to drive this innovation and achieve the improvements in quality at potentially lower cost that we can get out of digital?"

Responding for the government, Cabinet Office minister Lord Bridges said ministers remained "very focused" on digital reforms, and said the civil service's incoming chief people officer Rupert McNeil – unveiled yesterday – would put the issue "at the top of his agenda".

Liberal Democrat media spokesman Baron Clement-Jones said GDS had made "a huge contribution to better government", but sought further clarity on whether GDS's approach to tech would be maintained over the next five years.

"We heard the minister’s assurances about strategy, but can he give the House an absolute assurance that we are not going to return to a free-for-all where each government department sets up its own website again?"

Lord Bridges told the Lib Dem peer that there would be no backtracking.

"During the previous government a number of websites were shut down—scores indeed—some of which were competing against each other," the minister added. "I hope this is not a party-political point, but I think we have all learnt the lessons from the early days of digital. We need to make sure we continue on the approach we have set."

Meanwhile in the House of Commons, Labour MP Chi Onwurah – who served as the party's digital spokesperson until the election of the opposition's new leader Jeremy Corbyn – tabled a series of written questions to try and shed light on the scale of recent staff departures at GDS.

Onwurah asked Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock "what the level of staff turnover has been" at GDS during the last six months.

But Hancock responded by saying it would "not be possible to answer this question within the usual time period". He added: "An answer is being prepared and will be provided as soon as it is available."

Onwurah then took to Twitter to mock Hancock's response:

Asked Govt how many had resigned from @gdsteam. Thought it was bad but not so bad they didn't even know the answer:

— chi onwurah (@ChiOnwurah) October 13, 2015

Senior government figures have heaped praise on GDS in recent months, with David Cameron hailing the team as an "unsung triumph" of the coalition government, while Cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood insisted talk of a split over its future was "really overstated".

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