GDS: Will the strategy still be delivery?

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is an uncertain place at the moment – or so the rumour mill says.

The team are carrying on with their pre-existing strategy – one that was written last year to justify a £450m budget, but which has never been published, and is now likely never to be released. Everyone knows there is a new strategy on the way over the next couple of months, and nobody is quite sure how different it will be.

Kevin Cunnington, the director general of GDS, is writing that strategy – now known as the Government Digital Transformation Strategy – with the help of the trusted lieutenants he brought from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) when he was catapulted into his new job in August.

Some GDS insiders claim that Cunnington is said to feel “overwhelmed” by the role – I have no idea if that is true or not, or if people loyal to old regimes would rather like it to be so. If it is true, you can hardly blame him given the level of expectation and anticipation around his future plans.

But it’s understandable if GDS staffers feel a little unsure of the future. As well as a new boss, and three outsiders brought in from DWP to help write the new strategy, they have a new minister in Ben Gummer, and a Cabinet Office permanent secretary in John Manzoni who is poorly perceived and little trusted. They see a respected former minister in Francis Maude publicly expressing his concern for the future direction of GDS.

And they see senior, popular GDS leaders deciding to leave. There are stories of middle managers quitting too, claiming to be disappointed with the way they see GDS going – but you get that in any organisation, and it’s quite possible that is little more than natural staff turnover.

No break up of GDS

GDS will not be broken up – that has been promised by Cunnington. But it’s possible – probable – that his GDS will be very different, and it won’t be long before we find out how different.

Some of the rumours are somewhat esoteric – like one that claims Cunnington doesn’t like the bunting hanging from the ceiling all around GDS’s Holborn HQ, and that it won’t be there anymore when the team move to their new Aldgate office next year.

Another rumour says that Cunnington has told people to stop using the phrase “the strategy is delivery” – this was the founding mantra of GDS, the defining statement repeated often by former chief Mike Bracken. But the biggest question that people inside and outside GDS want to know is whether delivery is still going to be part of the strategy at all.

I’ve been told by several sources close to GDS that they expect Cunnington to significantly reduce the amount of software development carried out by GDS – this may not be an overnight move, but taking place over time. It is said that he sees GDS as a transformation unit similar to his former DWP operation – with delivery done elsewhere (also as in DWP, where delivery was owned by technology director Mayank Prakash).

Sources have talked of a Venn diagram doing the rounds in the Cabinet Office – three overlapping circles labelled digital transformation, organisational transformation, and manifesto commitments. The story goes that Cabinet Office executives see GDS existing in the area those three circles overlap – and no further. If true, that would risk GDS becoming little more than a central policy and standards unit of the type that GDS was established in 2011 to replace.

But add in some prototyping capability, or even a small development function for producing early beta versions of cross-government digital platforms – and do we then start to see a picture of where GDS is headed?

That remains, for now, a rhetorical question.

Devolved powers

It seems certain that some of GDS’s powers will be devolved back to departments – particularly the big departments that have lobbied to lessen GDS’s influence. The question is what powers, and to what extent?

For example, those departments have long complained that the GDS spending controls have become a hindrance and a delay to their digital plans. They resent having to bring their project plans and investment budgets to GDS for review and approval. According to one Whitehall departmental insider, departments believe that “the team at the centre had insufficient expertise to assess what they’re doing, and kept telling them ‘no’ without being able to mentor them on how to do it better.”

As a result, Manzoni asked Ministry of Defence (MoD) CIO Mike Stone earlier this year to review the GDS controls mechanism.

Not surprisingly – according to sources – a CIO of a big department initially recommended devolving spending controls back to big departments, and leaving GDS to oversee small departments with less digital expertise.

It seems a compromise was reached – projects would be classified according to their risk profile, with low risk projects devolved to departments; medium risk ones monitored occasionally; but high risk initiatives subject to full GDS scrutiny. Instead of departments bringing projects to an under-prepared GDS and seeing them delayed, all projects planned for the next 12 months would be put onto a forward “pipeline” so everyone could see what needed approval well in advance.

GDS announced last month that it’s in the early stages of piloting new ways of operating the controls process, so we may find out the preferred outcome soon.

Seed fund

But what about that £450m budget? What’s that going to be spent on if GDS devolves power and delivery capability back to departments?

Sources have suggested that some of that cash could be used as a “seed fund” where GDS invests in departmental projects that have a wider use across Whitehall – effectively, instead of GDS developing all the cross-government digital services itself, they give departments money to do it for them and keep a watching brief.

But this is all still speculation, and only Cunnington and his close companions really know.

For example, there was a strong rumour doing the rounds recently that Common Technology Services – the team run by former DVLA CTO Iain Patterson to roll out better technology for civil service staff – was going to be moved out of GDS. When asked by Computer Weekly, the Cabinet Office denied that absolutely – “No truth in this one at all,” we were told.

GDS may be a hotbed of rumour, uncertainty and speculation for now – but we await the truth, and it needs to come soon.

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