GDS needs to prove it can still transform government after loss of data policy to DCMS

I met Mike Bracken, the first leader of the Government Digital Service (GDS), in 2011, not long after he had started the job, for an off-the-record briefing about his ambitious plans to overhaul IT in Whitehall.

He asked me which online service I would highlight as an example of best practice and I chose the DVLA’s car tax system. Bracken acknowledged that most people would say the same, and added that his goal was for people to have many more options to choose from when answering that question.

What’s your choice for the best digital public service today? I suspect that for many of you, like me, you’ll still say car tax. Sure, there are better designed web pages for a lot of other services, paper forms have been web-enabled, and there’s Gov.uk, but the dramatic changes we all hoped for are harder to find.

Bracken’s high-profile resignation from GDS in August 2015 came when he lost the belief that Whitehall lacked the culture, organisation or intent to deliver on the vision he set out in 2011.

Dismantling GDS

Many observers – this one included – felt that Bracken’s departure would be the start of the slow process of dismantling GDS, a feeling accelerated when his successor, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, was unceremoniously ousted a year later, replaced by the DWP’s Kevin Cunnington. Given the friction between GDS and DWP, that move was seen as a victory for the Mandarins over the disruptive, pioneering spirit of early GDS.

It’s taken a little longer than anticipated, but Theresa May’s announcement last week that GDS was losing responsibility for data policy confirms that process is underway. It’s going to be inexorable, it will be a gradual diminishing, but it seems increasingly inevitable.

How can any organisation claim to be the centre of digital government, when it is no longer responsible for the core activity – the central plank – of digital services: data.

Perhaps we will find out on 10 May, when GDS hosts its first Sprint conference in two years. The event is billed as a chance “to celebrate all the great work that has been done so far to transform government” and to look at what comes next.

Cunnington wrote a blog in February to mark the one year anniversary of the Government Transformation Strategy – the plan that outlined what GDS would deliver by 2020. If he had published a similar blog six months ago – even a year ago – the wording wouldn’t have been that different.

Political fudge

When the tranformation strategy was launched, then Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer said “Data is going to be the way we achieve the largest transformation in government.” It still will be, but that policy is no longer led by GDS.

Twelve months after promising at the launch, the Cabinet Office had still not delivered on the first element of that aim, recruiting a chief data officer for government. Can you blame people for doubting its ability to deliver on data?

If GDS is to lead the transformation of government, then without data policy it has to do so wearing someone else’s badly fitting running shoes.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which won the Whitehall battle over data governance, has grown increasingly frustrated with GDS. DCMS fought just as hard to take on policy for digital identity too – GDS seems to have won that argument for now, but widespread disappointment over performance of its Gov.uk Verify service means it’s under ever-greater scrutiny.

It’s illogical to separate responsibility for data and identity. It’s a political fudge intended to minimise further embarrassment for GDS. “OK, you’re losing data, but you can hang on to identity” – you can imagine the conversation that led to that compromise.

GDS staff frustration

Let’s be clear about one important fact though – GDS still employs some excellent digital specialists. Many of its staff do a great job – they’re passionate and committed to improving public services. But they are increasingly frustrated too, about the leadership and direction of GDS, as recent staff surveys have revealed.

GDS was once lauded for a policy of “making things open, it makes things better”. But today it’s hunkered down, secretive, rarely willing to comment using anything more than brief statements or bland, self-celebratory blogs. GDS still has an important story to tell – it makes no sense not to be telling it. Whoever decided to neuter GDS’s public voice has to take a large share of blame for the growing chorus of concern about its role.

People care about GDS. They want it to work. Most of the criticism directed at GDS comes because people want it to be better, they see its potential and the opportunity that exists. Nobody bothers to criticise an organisation they don’t care about. The moment the wider digital community stop caring about GDS, it’s dead.

The Sprint event will need to show – through measurable targets and proven deliverables – that GDS is still actively leading the digital transformation of government. It will not be enough to simply say it is, to claim it is, to speak in press-office approved words that obfuscate and avoid hard commitments.

The fact that the announcement about losing data policy was snuck out in a written statement without any fanfare at the end of the day before the Easter break, just as MPs left for the Parliamentary recess, was a tacit and shameful admission of failure in how digital government is perceived and communicated in Whitehall.

GDS has not even commented on the loss of data policy – not a word, despite press requests for its views. Such silence cannot continue – GDS needs to loudly and publicly address these concerns. People want GDS to work.

Digital reform

Also last week, two of the architects of the digital government strategy that led to the formation of GDS, Jerry Fishenden and Mark Thompson, published a new “manifesto” for the digital reform of public services.

Fishenden and Thompson were also co-authors of a 2010 paper titled Better for less, led by Liam Maxwell, then an advisor to the Conservative Party’s technology policy lead, Francis Maude. As Cabinet Office minister in the coalition government, Maude led the implementation of many of the recommendations in that paper and it served as part of the justification for creating GDS.

Maxwell, now national technology advisor at DCMS, is likely to be the prime mover in whatever DCMS now does with data policy.

If you feel inclined, read that 2010 paper, then read Fishenden and Thompson’s manifesto. The words might be expressed differently, but the principles are very much the same. How much has really changed in the interim?

We all see the potential, the opportunity, for public services designed for the digital age. So many people want GDS to be successful in delivering that goal. GDS, and the government, needs to demonstrate – publicly, openly and honestly – that it still can.

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