Jeremy Heywood has downplayed rumours of a falling out over the future of the Government Digital Service, following a number of high-profile departures from the central government team.
It was announced over the summer that GDS director and founder Mike Bracken is to depart for a role at the Co-Operative group, with other leaders including the GDS deputy director Tom Loosemore heading for the exit.
There have been reports that the shake-up at GDS could herald a tough settlement for the unit at November’s Spending Review, with questions raised over the future of its ambitious “Government as a Platform” plans to create a common digital infrastructure for departments.
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“The civil service doesn’t like uncertainty, it’s a machine that is designed around certainty”
The Cabinet Secretary was pressed on the future of GDS at an event hosted by the Institute for Govenrment on Tuesday.
While Heywood acknowledged that GDS had now entered “a different phase” — with departments taking charge of their own digital plans — he denied that there had been a clash at the centre over its future.
“I think that talk of an argument is really overstated to be honest,” he said.
“Mike’s great skill was as an insurgent in a way. And he’s done a brilliant job creating a group of people, creating a brilliant brand which has been able to attract real talent from across the world.
“But he was ready for a new challenge and I think we’re ready to move GDS onto a different phase in its own work.”
The cabinet secretary said Bracken had helped to recruit “excellent heads of digital in all of the key departments”.
But he signalled that he saw the future of GDS — whose achievements so far include a major overhaul of the way Whitehall deals with IT suppliers and the unification of all government websites under GOV.UK — in building departmental capability.
“You can’t run the whole of digital — HMRC’s digital strategy — from the Cabinet Office. It’s a vast organisation. The same with DWP. And IT and digital is a core part of its mission. So no permanent secretary could be in charge of those departments unless they’ve got a real grip on the digital agenda of their own department. It’s so core to their mission. And they are basically IT businesses.
“So Mike, quite rightly, has seen it as one of his key jobs to build capacity in each of the departments and make sure we’ve got a clear whole of government strategy. And then we’ve got capability within each department to drive that through. That’s exactly the phase we’re now moving to.”
Heywood said Bracken would leave Whitehall at the end of the month with a “huge amount of goodwill” behind him, and said he believed it was “absolutely vital” for GDS to continue its work.
“I hope we’ll get backing from the Treasury at the Spending Review — but that’s not a bid,” he joked.
“And we will all see if that happens. We’ll see a huge transformation, I hope, in the digitisation of government over the next four years.”
Heywood is the latest senior government figure to heap praise on GDS since the announcement of Bracken’s departure. Earlier this month, prime minister David Cameron used a speech on the Spending Review to hail GDS as one of the “great unsung triumphs” of the last parliament, while Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock has described himself as a “huge supporter” of its work.
Hancock this week set out plans for a new fellowship scheme allowing officials from the US and UK to swap ideas on government.
More from Tuesday's IfG talk:
Jeremy Heywood: “No great enthusiasm” for axing government departments
Jeremy Heywood on Freedom Of Information: Public doesn't stand for secrecy