GDS 'under duress' - is there a row going on down near Whitechapel?

The Government Digital Service (GDS) has taken its fair share of criticism in recent years – including from Computer Weekly – and much of it justified. But there’s little doubt the team at GDS HQ in Whitechapel has been at the heart of much of Whitehall’s digital response to the coronavirus pandemic, supporting the launch of an unprecedented 69 services on during March, April and May, with a further 46 on the way, and coping with huge peaks in web demand.

While GDS has made its share of mistakes, few can question the commitment to digital change of its employees.

So it seems there’s been a bit of a storm this week after the publication of a not altogether well-written document called the “Digital, Data and Technology Functional Standard”.

What is a “functional standard” you may ask? If so, you’re not the only one.

Computer Weekly sources suggest that the document has gone down like a “lead balloon” with a lot of staff at GDS. We’re told that the document was produced “under duress”, with an external consultant brought in because the in-house team didn’t want anything to do with it.

So what’s the fuss all about?

As anyone who has dealt with GDS knows, at the heart of its digital belief system is “user need”, a concept that seems to have been relegated to a secondary consideration by the new standard. This led to something of a Twitterstorm.

Here is a selection of the opinions expressed by former GDS managers:

It’s not only former GDSers outside the civil service expressing their concerns, either. This comes from the current director of digital and transformation at the Department for Education:

Our sources suggest that the document was produced within the team lead by John Strudwick, GDS director of service, design and assurance, under orders from Civil Service CEO John Manzoni – long something of a bogeyman for people in GDS – who has championed the production of “functional standards” across Whitehall for other cross-departmental roles such as HR, project management  and legal. Speculation has it that Manzoni was keen to see the digital standards finalised before his impending departure and pushed GDS leadership to get it produced.

Judging by the reaction, once Manzoni has gone it will end up in a drawer somewhere for reference, and rarely looked at again.

Today, there’s been something of a push back from within GDS to those tweets:

Even that defence from the GDS standards assurance service owner seems to carry with it a sense of, “don’t blame us, blame management”.

Sources in GDS describe the whole affair as a “Cabinet Office blunder”.

But this is important. The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation in every sector, but especially in government. Digital is all about being agile, responsive to user needs, moving away from the old monolothic ways of government IT. It’s meant to be about breaking down bureaucracy, getting rid of red tape and simplifying public service delivery.

These are principles shouted from the rooftops by GDS staffers.

The last thing anybody in Whitehall’s growing digital community needs is extra layers of process or top-down imposition of meaningless standards, especially at such a critical point in the digital transformation of government.

We all know that Boris Johnson and his chief aide Dominic Cummings want to overhaul the civil service – and soon. They would do well to look at the best of GDS to give an idea of what can be done, and not to those who want to codify and proceduralise and turn the digital arteries of government sclerotic.


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