How to break up GDS without breaking up GDS

The Cabinet Office and its latest recruit – new Government Digital Service (GDS) chief Kevin Cunnington – are adamant that GDS will not be broken up.

Cunnington told us so in his first blog post of his new job. The Cabinet Office said that the controversial change of leadership “categorically” does not mean GDS will be broken up.

That phrase risks becoming the digital equivalent of “Brexit means Brexit” – say it often enough and people believe it, but nobody can really explain what it actually means.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of ways that GDS can be broken up, without breaking up GDS. Here are a few ways it might happen – all based on discussions with insiders who describe the sort of tactics often used within Whitehall to minimise controversy around unpopular changes. There’s no suggestion any of these are currently taking place, but watch this space:

Departmental maturity

When I first met Mike Bracken – the original GDS chief – soon after he joined in 2011, he was clear that his long-term goal was to break up GDS. He saw this happening when digital culture and practices had become embedded in the civil service and across Whitehall departments. At such a time, there would no longer be a need for a central team to lead digital transformation because government would be naturally digital in every way.
We’re a long way from that happening. While the bigger departments – HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Home Office – have all made great strides, few in the wider government digital community think they have sufficient capability yet to take over GDS’s responsibilities.

But that won’t stop us being told that they have. Core GDS projects such as the Gov.uk website, or the Verify identity assurance service, could easily be moved into departments – HMRC is known to have its eyes on Verify, for example – and be presented as inevitable consequences of the growing digital maturity in those departments.

Such a move would be said to be a success story for GDS – proof that the model of a centre of excellence that brings others up to speed, is working. GDS would then look to work on the next initiative – at least, until there are no new initiatives left outside departments.

Spending and project controls

One of the most important – and in terms of financial savings, most successful – elements of GDS has been the controls introduced on spending and project progress under Bracken. Departments need GDS approval to spend more than £100m on IT contracts; while all digital projects are supposed to meet the service assessment standards specified by GDS before they can progress to the next stage of development or live service.

Those rules are already being bent – HMRC, for example, billed its online personal tax accounts service as a “beta” version, even though the system failed its GDS service assessment to attain such status.

There are also rumours that spending controls may be managed outside GDS – possibly in a new government commercial organisation that is being set up. It would also be a simple step to say that all service assessments are now run by departments without any GDS oversight or input.

Neither act would “break up” GDS, but would represent a significant diminishing of its influence over Whitehall IT.

Senior management

The Cabinet Office insists that no changes to the GDS senior leadership team are currently planned – but Cunnington has already brought in some of his former DWP colleagues to help him assess GDS as he prepares his own plan for the organisation.

We have already seen one influential figure quit since Cunnington’s appointment was announced – Janet Hughes, programme director for the Gov.uk Verify identity assurance programme, and also head of strategy, policy and departmental engagement for GDS.

Most coverage of Hughes’ departure has focused on Verify, the much-delayed project for which she has been a vocal champion. But her recent work has focused much more on her role as head of strategy and policy for GDS – a position that will now need to be filled by someone else.

Insiders say that some GDS leaders are concerned about the recent changes and may consider their own position. The big question will be – will any new leaders to replace Hughes or others come from within GDS or be brought in from DWP or other departments?

Centres of excellence

HMRC and DWP already operate several regional digital delivery centres, some of which are shared. One of the criticisms of GDS has been that it is too London-centric. Kevin Cunnington has been heavily involved in establishing DWP’s regional centres, so you could presume he is a fan of such a model.

Key GDS development teams could be co-located in the regional offices – which happen to be DWP or HMRC offices – and presented as digital centres of excellence. Still GDS – but not really.

Digital skills

Cunnington also set up a Digital Academy in DWP to spread digital skills and educate non-digital workers about what digital transformation means. It seems to have been a success. GDS has always had responsibility for helping develop digital skills across government – and presumably Cunnington has taken over from his immediate predecessor, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, as head of the digital and technology profession for the civil service.

As a result, might he consider bringing the DWP Digital Academy into GDS? It would support GDS’s skills remit – but would inevitably raise questions about whether it’s “GDS digital” being spread through Whitehall, or “DWP digital”.

Given the huge falling out between GDS and DWP over Universal Credit back in 2013 – which has not been entirely forgotten by some key figures in the relationship between the two organisations – many of those at DWP would see it as a victory if their version of “digital” became prominent.

Steering committees

GDS operates a variety of steering committees, designed to bring departmental and GDS leaders together to discuss common issues, and to support GDS’s engagement with those departments. Generally, those boards are chaired by GDS staff – it would be straightforward to instead have departmental leaders taking on responsibility for running and chairing those steering committees.

Level playing field

Liam Maxwell, the former government CTO within GDS, was always adamant that moves to specify open standards and to bring in more SMEs was about creating a level playing field for suppliers. Of course, the real agenda was about breaking the stranglehold of a small number of major IT suppliers and systems integrators, and avoiding lock-in to their proprietary products. Here too, a lot of progress has been made.

However, there are persistent rumours that the IT chiefs in departments are increasingly turning back to the familiar big consultancies and tech giants that have run their IT under long-term outsourcing deals for years. We’ve seen a recent spate of departmental digital chiefs departing – Mark Dearnley in HMRC, Norm Driskell at the Home Office, even Cunnington leaving DWP. There are plenty of people who see this as a precursor to greater involvement from the old suppliers that had become so discredited before GDS was created.

This is not necessarily a bad thing of course – if those big firms do genuinely compete on a level playing field with more innovative SMEs, avoiding long-term lock-in contracts, conforming to open standards and digital practices, then nobody will be unhappy.

But any sign of a return to the bad old days will mean a further diminishing of GDS’s influence and principles.

So what?

None of this may be a bad thing. Perhaps there is a better way than the current GDS model – although nobody has come up with one yet. And let’s be honest – GDS is far from perfect, has made a lot of mistakes, and has huge scope to improve. Much of the criticism of GDS is valid – the over-focus on websites, the lack of back-end tech infrastructure skills, the inexperience in the realities of large-scale IT systems of the type used by DWP and HMRC.

But for all its flaws, the GDS model has made government IT a lot better than it was before GDS existed. The model is being copied around the world – most notably in the US. And it undoubtedly played a big part in the UK recently being hailed by the United Nations as the world number one for e-government.

Maybe it is time to break up GDS. But if it is, let’s have an honest debate about why, and what is the best alternative, instead of the gradual chipping away prompted by Whitehall internal politics that seems to be underway at the moment.

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I see this as a much larger version of what is playing out in many (public and private) organisations. As you know Bryan from the article I did for CW - https://www.computerweekly.com/opinion/Getting-the-best-out-of-the-old-and-the-new-in-government-IT -  I wasn't sure about the point of the CDO role because at times over the last few years I have lived in something of a utopian vision of the world. In that utopian world digital just is the business so you don't need to bring in a special role to "do it". However, I have been convinced since that sometimes a change is so big and requires such a different mindset that you do need a shock senior role to shake it up. 

GDS has been like a CDO on a large scale. I don't agree with everything they have done, and there have been some big gaps in their game but what they have started to bring about is way, way, way better than government technology pre 2010. I should know I was there (in the Cabinet Office) and I hated everything about the big CIO culture back then. The excesses of big IT and big CIOs cost the country in a way most people who pay the bill for it will never realise. Yes GDS needs to evolve but its far too early to back to how it was. This has not become business as usual yet.  
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