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Will GDS see another mass exodus?

Yesterday saw the departure of another senior figure at the Government Digital Service (GDS) as Gov.uk Verify director Janet Hughes announced she is leaving.

The news, which came only weeks after GDS boss Stephen Foreshew-Cain announced he was leaving government, is likely to cause speculation around the future of the organisation. Sounds familiar? That’s because it is.

It’s only been a year since the shock-departure of the then GDS boss Mike Bracken, which got the rumour mill going at full speed. Following his departure, a series of senior GDS leaders followed him out the door. Although this was billed as part of a “natural change”, it did little to stop people in and outside of government wondering about the future of digital government.

With Hughes following on, so shortly after Foreshew-Cain’s departure, the question is will there be more adieus to come?

GDS mass exodus ahead?

If one is to believe the rumour mill, Foreshew-Cain’s departure was unexpected, and as one government source put it, he was “stabbed in the back”. His replacement, Kevin Cunnington, formerly the director of business transformation at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was brought in to ease tensions between departments and GDS, according to government sources.

Ahead of the announcement, sources also suggested this may lead to several senior GDS figures questioning their own future in the department- cue Hughes’s exit.

As our editor in chief Bryan Glick has already pointed out, GDS’s future is far from secure. Not the least because civil service chief executive has never been a big believer in Government as a platform, or that GDS should deliver services- he believes digital government is best delivered through departments.

Although Cabinet Office has reiterated time and time again that GDS is not going to be broken up, a future continuing on the same path is hard to imagine, which leads me nicely on to my next point: Gov.uk Verify.

Verify’s future looks bleak

The government’s identity assurance service has been a controversial topic. The service, which aims to become the standard way of proving your identity, not just in central government, but across all public services and beyond, went live earlier this year.

Hughes, who led the creation and deployment of the service, has huge ambitions for the programme, and even envisions it being used for people opening bank accounts, checking their health records or booking a flight.

However, without her driving force behind it, the programme could easily falter, especially as both the DWP and HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) are not overly keen on Verify and want to develop their own versions of the system- should one believe the rumour mill. In fact, according to sources, HMRC is already developing its own version of both Verify and Gov.uk Notify.

So what does the future of GDS hold? Of course, the Cabinet Office will continue to tell the public that there won’t be a dismantling or break up of the organisation. One can also not deny that GDS received significant funding in last year’s spending review. The house of cards may still be standing, but for how long?

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It is obvious that the constant change in direction of all the departments involved that they each have different requirements both politically and economically.Take for example local authorities who would like to deliver health and social care in the community via digital technology.This could be done and money is better spent here than any DWP project would ever deliver. However analysis shows that the very vulnerable people you wish to deliver services to have had there DLA or pension cut leaving them unable to afford a broadband connection or suitable computer hardware to receive such services. Whilst libraries a former home of computer access for the elderly have but all been closed in some areas. The new prime minister is likely to announce zero rated VAT on severely disabled and blind people buying computer goods to help with inclusion caused by the failed George osbourne cuts which split the conservative party so badly injecting so much more cost into any attempt to deliver any digital services by government.
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