Followers of the ups and downs of the Government Digital Service (GDS) will be aware of the question marks surrounding the future of the organisation and the Whitehall in-fighting over its role.
The Cabinet Office denies such speculation, of course, and instead insists that the recent surprise appointment of former Department for Work and Pensions digital chief Kevin Cunnington to take over GDS is a sign of confidence in its future role.
But it’s difficult not to raise an eyebrow when former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude – the man who created GDS and backed it throughout his five-year tenure in the last parliamentary cycle – expresses concern about what’s happening.
Credit to Public Finance magazine for reporting Maude’s comments during a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference this week.
Maude reportedly said, of GDS: “You have to drive it centrally, and departments, separate ministries and separate agencies, prize their autonomy and they will always want to take it back, and that is now happening.”
He continued: “Just when the UK has recently been ranked top in the world for digital government, we are beginning to unwind precisely the arrangements that had led to that and which were being copied in America and Australia and also some other countries as well. This is for me a pity – there is a sense these old structures in government, which are essentially about preserving the power of the mandarins, are being reasserted.”
That “power of the mandarins” comment echoes former GDS chief Mike Bracken’s observation on quitting GDS in August 2015 that he was concerned about “reverting back to mandarin-led lands of authority”.
Cunnington is reviewing GDS’s plans and activities and is expected to reveal his strategy in the next couple of months. Now that Maude has added his concerns to the mix, the scrutiny of where GDS goes next will only become more intense.