‘Pockets of the organisation are running hotter than others’: GDS chief unpacks Brexit preparations

Alison Pritchard also sets out vision for closer working with HM Treasury on next Spending Round

The GDS headquarters in east London Credit: Derwent

By Jim.Dunton

20 Sep 2019

Government Digital Service interim head Alison Pritchard has accepted that some parts of the organisation are feeling the heat more than others in the runup to the government's planned 31 October Brexit day, but insists there is sufficient capacity to handle the next looming deadline.

Pritchard said preparations for year’s two previous target Brexit Days in March and April had given the organisation clear insight on what it was going to take for an “absolute deadline” of 23:00 on October 31.

“We’ve got pockets of the organisation that are running hotter than others because of the nature of EU exit,” Pritchard said, citing head of GOV.UK Jen Allum’s team an example.


Pritchard, who was appointed to the helm of GDS on a temporary basis last month following Kevin Cunnington’s departure, said the year’s earlier deadlines could be viewed as “rehearsals” for next month.

“My former job was director of EU exit & transformation. I’ve got a team that’s leading very strongly on preparedness of digital systems generally across the piece,” she said.

“They all know that as we head towards 23:00 that you start to look at real ‘go live’ plans for each of these services that have been stood up and got ready, but where you haven’t been able to absolutey flip the switch until legal frameworks change and you want people to be using these services.”

A media briefing held against the backdrop of yesterday’s Sprint 19 conference heard the GDS was expecting a surge of traffic on GOV.UK in the coming weeks as people looked for the information they needed ahead of Brexit. 

Pritchard told the session that GDS had made preparations to buy-in additional expertise to support its work over the coming weeks, and had also been clear that key in-house staff had to get time off they needed ahead of the ”end stages”.

“Will we be ready in terms of capacity? Yes,” she said. “We’ve also been able to progress things like the sharing of resource across departments through the clearing hub model. That’s been tested several times now. That’s improving. And we’ve been able to find time to set up further contracts with industry to make sure that we can tap into capacity both in terms of individuals and at bench and team levels as well.

“From a digital perspective, I’m not overly worried about capacity. Am I worried about how people are feeling? I’m not complacent. I’m working with all the teams to make sure they’ve got effective planning in place to give key people time off so that they’re refreshed and ready for the end stages.”

Pritchard noted that while 31 October was talked about “a lot”, it was not the end of the work GDS would need to do if Brexit took place on that day.

“There will be plenty of ongoing work to support circumstances beyond that,” she said.

She added that she did not believe there had been an opportunity cost for the GDS in terms of other projects that would have been prioritised in different circumstances.

“I don’t look at it this way,” she said. “It’s been an accelerator for various different things; it really has pushed agendas on quite quickly.”

Pritchard added there had been no loosening of spending controls for the major projects GDS is involved with because of the pressures of Brexit.

“We have worked hard around our service design guidance, to make sure, that where services are ready to go live if there is some further tweaking that might need to be done, we can work creatively with the department to make sure that the those fixes might be addressed in time,” she said.

She added that she wanted to see the more partnership working between the GDS and HM Treasury to address the overall deliverability of programmes at the “very earliest” stage.

“They are always looking for help in terms of how we can make sure that bids are right and proper and effective and deliverable,” she said. 

“And, I think, the area where we can strengthen our pitch with the Treasury is around transformation opportunities, where there are complexities in the way that spending reviews are done on a very bilateral basis – we are looking forward to be able to do something a bit more agile with business cases, to make sure that risk is shared in the right way, and making sure we encourage innovation.”

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