Sprint 16: Six things we learned about the future of government digital from the GDS conference

Rolling out text alerts, sorting out "crap" government IT, cleaning up data, and trying to recruit skilled people when the money's tight — there's plenty going on in the world of government digital, as Matt Foster found at the Government Digital Service's annual gathering

By matt.foster

12 Feb 2016

It’s been a pretty eventful year for the Government Digital Service (GDS), the Cabinet Office team set up in the last parliament to change the way government deals with tech suppliers, sharpen its digital skills, and improve the online experience of people using the state's web services.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, a vocal champion of the group right from the start, was shuffled into a trade role after the election, while GDS’s founder Mike Bracken headed off for pastures new (the Co-op digital service and his own consultancy firm, to be precise), followed by a raft of other senior leaders. That prompted speculation that the unit was going to get its wings clipped at November's Spending Review — in fact, the opposite turned out to be true.

Under new leader Stephen Foreshew-Cain, the Cabinet Office team got a £450m boost when George Osborne made his announcement, while the government as a whole committed £1.8bn to the business of what it’s calling “digital transformation”. GDS’s annual gathering — dubbed Sprint — took place at the BFI in London this week, and gave us the chance to have a look at what the team plans to do with that extra firepower. How do Whitehall’s digital leaders believe they can improve online services while also grappling with another big round of public spending cuts? Here’s what we learned from this year’s gathering:

Related links:
Spending Review 2015: George Osborne unveils surprise boost for Government Digital Service
Closing the gap: A look at government as a platform
Government as a Platform: Taking the £1.8bn Plunge

1) GDS is now really keen to point out that it wants a collaborative relationship with departments

It’s no secret that GDS has ruffled a few departmental feathers since it was set up. The clash of cultures between that insurgent central team — often sent in to trouble-shoot — and departments with their own ways of working, was perhaps best illustrated by the trouble the Rural Payments Agency ran into when trying to make one of its key services digital-by-default. MPs branded the disagreements between leaders of the central and departmental teams — outlined in a tough National Audit Office report — as “childish”.

But a couple of senior officials have told CSW that they’ve noticed a of bit change in their relationship with GDS in recent months — and there was a strong message of collaboration coming from both Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock and new GDS chief Stephen Foreshew-Cain on Thursday.

As Hancock put it: “The role of the centre and of GDS in particular is to support and challenge — yes, through the spending controls that we have... But we want to move towards having high standards that are agreed together, so that the process is less about the centre telling people what to do, and more about having a high, agreed set of standards that everybody lives up to. And then [GDS can play] the job of thought leaders, making sure that we’re constantly pushing, challenging, asking what we can do next."

A key line from Foreshew-Cain — who also heaped praise on Maude following the announcement this week that the Tory peer is leaving frontline politics — came when the GDS director said of government services and platforms: “We won’t be building them all. I’m going to say that again, because I get asked it a lot: to be very clear: we’re not going to be building them all in GDS. We are going to make sure they get built.” 

He told the Sprint delegates: “You need a centre that will back you up, that will give you the tools that you need to do the right thing for your users. We’ve got your back.

“I am proudest when I see GDS fulfilling the roles of custodians of our shared platforms and curator of our shared knowledge and practices, providing the resources that can support you in delivery, supporting service transformation around user needs, as in departments, agencies, and other bodies. That’s what we’re here for.”

All of which sounds more than a little collaborative. Or, as the Department for Work and Pensions’ digital chief Kevin Cunnington put it: ”Transformation is a team sport.” 

2) There’s an awareness that Whitehall faces challenges in recruiting and retaining digital specialists at a time of civil service-wide pay restraint — but leaders stress that there are other perks of the job

The National Audit Office put out a pretty stark report last year on just this issue, with the spending watchdog asking senior digital leaders across Whitehall for their view of whether they felt had the right tools for the job. More than four-fifths of those asked said the amount they were able to pay staff had had a negative impact on their organisation’s ability to “recruit and retain the right people from elsewhere”, while the majority of respondents said they believed civil service recruitment processes had had a negative impact on their department or agency.

CSW pressed Hancock on those findings on Thursday, with the minister saying he thought the NAO’s findings were “very fair”. But he added: “If you think about the high quality people that have come into government, in GDS and in departments, there are some brilliant people. 

“What we need to do is make sure we attract people based on this mission. Yes, pay matters — of course it does. But they are working as part of a mission for a nation we love. That is my call to arms. Whether that be a coder, or someone leading, you are playing a part. It’s a pleasure to lead that effort.”

Foreshew-Cain himself gave a few more specifics on the steps the Cabinet Office is taking to try and ensure the civil service can compete with a private sector that’s able to offer megabucks. But while he too focused on that public service mission, there was also some talk of loosening pay restrictions — and using training opportunities, as well as the civil service’s comparative diversity, as a selling point.

He said: “Transforming services isn’t just something digital teams or operational service teams have to do. It’s a shared responsibility. But it is underpinned by skilled professionals, experts in their field. That requires a civil service that can attract, develop and keep people who have the skills we need to transform services. 

“So we’re going to develop a digital, data and technology profession to do that, by simplifying the recruitment process to make joining government easier, defining flexible career paths and structures, and developing cross-government reward and retention strategies so that when we find good people they want to stay. 

“We will make the civil service a destination for people who want their skills to make a real difference to society. And we will make sure that this profession represents the people we are building services for, by challenging ourselves to build a truly diverse and inclusive workforce.”

3) Government-as-a-Platform is gathering pace, with the first public demonstrations of GOV.UK Notify and GOV.UK Pay going off without a hitch

If you don’t yet know what GOV.UK Pay and GOV.UK Notify are, you probably will soon — whether you’re a civil servant or a plain old civilian. These are two new platforms being developed by GDS as part of its Government-as-a-Platform strategy, which essentially aims to put in place a single, simpler system for those transactions between citizen and state that are common to all bits of government. 

The plan is to allow departments to benefit from using the same infrastructure — stopping Whitehall “building a kitchen every time we want a meal”, in the words of GDS’s Chris Ferguson.

In the case of GOV.UK Pay, director Till Wirth explained: “We make it really hard for people to pay government. We ask them to call or use clunky outsourced payment systems. We’ve got to change this.”

The public demo (always a brave move) of GOV.UK Pay certainly made it look very simple from a user perspective, as easy as signing up and paying for something with, say, Paypal. And the user ID registered by the citizen can then be used across government services; no maddening seperate accounts and lost passwords here. 

But it's also designed to be very easy for departments themselves to use, with a straightforward-looking interface for officials to keep track of the payments that their organisations have received. And Wirth promised there would be other benefits too, including granting departments the flexibility to adapt to changing habits. 

“Let’s say Apple Pay really takes off as an online payments provider,” he explained. “If we wanted to […] accept Apple Pay for all government services, then every single department and agency would have to write a business case, get that business case approved, get the developers, do the development work, test it and then deploy it, and then a few months later they would accept Apple Pay. If you multiply that by a few hundred times you can imagine how much work and how much waste that is."

With GOV.UK Pay in place, however, departments will now have GDS to act as "a broker, a marketplace between government services and the payments industry”, meaning Whitehall can benefit from economies of scale and leave GDS to integrate the new payment system and "switch it on for all of government in a couple of weeks".

GOV.UK Notify could also be a bit of a game-changer. As product manager Pete Herlihy (sporting a much-commented-upon Hawaiian shirt) explained, one in every four calls made to government is from a citizen asking for an update on something they’ve already requested. 

“As a government, we spend a lot of taxpayer’s money answering those phonecalls,” he said. “The worst part is that we know where your thing is at, but we don’t tell you. We make you phone. And that frankly, is unacceptable.”

So Notify aims to make it easier for departments and agencies to keep the public informed — through text messages, e-mails or letters — about the services they’re waiting on, hopefully cutting call volumes in the process. 

Notify looked very straightforward for officials wanting to send the actual notifications to service users, too: you register an account, confirm who you are via text and email, write a template, import the contacts and send. The whole process took five minutes in the runthrough.

Janet Hughes (whose recent CSW blog arguing in favour of civil servants being more bold was quoted by Foreshew-Cain in his closing speech) also gave a detailed breakdown of progress on the GOV.UK Verify identity assurance scheme. This is another GaaP service which is expected to cut out a lot of face-to-face verification work for departments by allowing citizens to prove who they are just once, and then use that identity to access a whole host of government services. It's set to go live April after extensive testing, Hughes explained, with seven central government departments and 25 services set to be using it by then.

4) Getting Whitehall's sometimes messy datasets in order is now a big priority

Fun fact: the government keeps seven separate lists of all the countries recognised by the UK. And, as the Foreign Office’s digital transformation lead Alison Daniels explained, those lists “do not even contain the same number of countries”. That means there’s no single, definitive source of what you might think would be pretty straightforward data. 

These kind of problems aren’t uncommon, either. This week’s NAO report on troubles at civil service pensions administrator MyCSP pointed the finger at longstanding problems with the quality of departmental data on pension entitlements, and urged the Cabinet Office to get the datasets into shape. 

Part of the problem is that government datasets often weren’t put together with the online age in mind — sometimes they’re just a digitised version of old, paper-based systems, riddled with typos from manual entry.

So there’s big push from GDS to create more of what are called “canonical registers”. These might not sound very sexy, but they could have big implications. The first to launch was the FCO’s country list, and Daniels said her team wanted it to be seen as an example of “what a really good data structure looks like”. 

“What we’ve tried to demonstrate when we put together this country register are the characteristics and qualities of registers,” she said. “They have to be useful, the one source of information, curated by the experts - that’s the definition of a canonical source of data.”

The country register is already being used on the government’s petitions site, she said — and the FCO hopes more organisations will be able to draw on it. 

Of course, having good data and ensuring that it’s actually used to support good, evidence-based policymaking are two very different things. Gareth Davies, a director general at the Department for Business, said that when he first joined the civil service, the officials who tended to do well were those who were good at storytelling — regardless of the facts.

“What you’d do is you’d write out your White Paper, and you’d have lots of square brackets for the facts to be added, saying ‘numbers please’ and some stuff would come back,” he recalled. “We’ve got to shake that up — you’ve got to move it so that the policymakers aren’t in the restaurant waiting for the food to be served up, but they’re in the kitchen messing around with it and playing it.” 

5) If you’re a civil servant lumbered with “crap” IT, GDS wants to know about it

No, not CSW’s words, but those of the minister for the Cabinet Office and paymaster general, the Rt Hon Matthew Hancock MP.

“I’ve been a minister now in four different government departments,” he said. “And one of the common refrains that we’ve had is that the technology that we use in order to run the business of government holds back the use of digital more broadly, because the kit that we have is just not up to it.

“I’ve seen different systems, organised in different ways, with different levels of interoperability with other departments. And I can see people around the room nodding either because they have got really crap IT or because they have tried to communicate effectively with someone in another department and come across a barrier in trying to do that.”

So what’s the plan? Beefing up Common Technology Services, it seems. The CTS programme was launched late last year, with the aim of ironing out common frustrations with tech faced by officials, and removing a “really expensive” barrier to getting on with the job. 

It’s now led by Iain Patterson, the former DVLA tech chief who helped the driver agency to bring its IT back in-house after decades of outsourcing it to the private sector. CTS founder Andy Beale has meanwhile moved up to a new role as deputy chief technical officer for the whole of government, where his boss is long-serving CTO Liam Maxwell.

Maxwell told Sprint that he wanted the CTS team to focus on furnishing “the stationery cupboard of government” (which does sound a little bit analogue). That meant, he said, giving officials “a network that is easy to deploy“, “collaboration tools to allow people to work together” and the ability to share their diaries easily with colleagues across Whitehall. 

Again, it’s not the most glamorous of areas that GDS focuses on, but as Maxwell pointed out: “This is the meat and drink of our lives”. It should, he said, be “done effectively, not as some part of some other project”.

Meanwhile, Hancock said dealing with departmental tech nightmares could have benefits for the wider GDS agenda. “In a way, this also is a Trojan Horse to persuade my fellow ministers that this, as a whole, is a good programme. I tell them that I have the best IT and the best laptops and technology — and they then complain vigorously about theirs. And I say to them, ‘You know, if you get with the programme you can have it too! Just as long as you sign up to the rest of the programme.'”

6) More government-organised events should include free laptop stickers

Because they allow slightly crumpled CSW journalists to blend in with tech types for a day.

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