If not GDS, then what?

The closer we’ve come to the UK general election, the more it seems the Government Digital Service (GDS) is taking a public bashing. You might wonder why.

It’s certainly true to say that GDS divides opinion across the public sector and among IT suppliers – it has become Marmite for many observers and practitioners of government IT; you either love it or hate it. That in itself is understandable – when any new organisation challenges the status quo, with its institutional inertia and entrenched vested interests, there will be a backlash.

Indeed, GDS quite deliberately set out to slay sacred cows – the model for government IT by the 2010 election was clearly broken, and Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude gave GDS a remit specifically to shake things up.

Some of the vested interests that GDS has upset deserved everything that came their way – the big system integrators raking in billions of pounds; the cosy relationships of old-school IT managers waiting out for their civil service pensions; the endless procurement cycles.

But the recent noises off feel different.

It’s important to point out here that GDS is currently unable to defend itself against criticism – the pre-election purdah rules for civil servants mean it isn’t allowed to offer a public perspective on its work. Of course that’s great for anyone wanting to leak or publish critical information, knowing that nobody from GDS will be able to comment or counter.

But equally, that doesn’t mean some of that criticism is undeserved.

Valid concerns

Even some of GDS’s biggest supporters acknowledge its flaws. There are valid concerns that need to be discussed – insiders have questioned the “build everything” preference and an over-dependence on agile; a lack of external scrutiny; delays to critical programmes such as the Verify identity assurance service; accusations of hubris and arrogance towards departmental IT teams. You might add others, not least the failed rural payments system.

It’s also fair to say that many of the changes GDS has put in place will only show their real benefits over the life of the next government – enforcing open standards; eliminating big outsourcing deals and ending inflexible legacy contracts; encouraging SMEs through G-Cloud; and others.

I’ll declare my interest by saying I’m still glass-half-full about GDS – but it has got things wrong and it needs to deal with critical feedback better and more openly (once out of purdah). I realise the irony of writing that GDS needs to deal with feedback better, at a time when it can’t respond to feedback. But I hope readers will forgive me on the timing of this article, for I wanted to make observations after some of the recent commentary elsewhere.

Let’s look at some of the most recent criticism. This month, consultancy BDO published a report criticising GDS for its dual delivery and advisory role in government, highlighting the risks BDO sees and offering its “high-level vision for GDS’s future”. The report was, I’m told, not externally commissioned, but was proactively written by BDO, apparently without any input or discussion with GDS itself. Frankly, it’s the most self-serving document you can imagine – you could summarise it thus: “GDS needs more input from private sector advisory firms, says big private sector advisory firm.”

This week, The Register reported on a leaked report from July 2014 by a consultancy brought in to review GDS’s people processes, which highlighted problems with high staff turnover, criticisms of leadership and recruitment, and accusations of favouritism.

I wouldn’t criticise The Reg for publishing – but here too you might question the timing of the leak itself. Because of purdah, GDS can’t explain how it responded to the report, whether it has addressed all those criticisms in the 10 months since, nor put forward any of the GDS staff who outside purdah use Twitter to regularly talk about how much they enjoy working there.

Let’s not forget that GDS is barely three-and-a-half years old, and has gone from nothing to more than 300 employees plus contractors in such a short time. Any new organisation that grows at that rate is going to have staff problems and make mistakes in people management along the way.

Glass half full, admittedly.

Reviewing GDS

GDS has rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way – mostly, because it had to. But after the election, and despite the public support it has received from the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, there’s bound to be some review of where GDS goes next.

We already know, for example, that McKinsey has been brought in to help work on the business case for GDS’s government as a platform strategy – not the sort of consultancy you would expect GDS to use but chosen, apparently, because the Treasury likes them.

We know too, that some of the big IT suppliers that have seen their new business from Whitehall diminish under GDS have been lobbying Labour over the last couple of years. They want their toys back.

So perhaps it’s inevitable that GDS’s critics see the election period as an opportunity to stake their claim in the hope of changing things post-election. Just to say it again – some of those criticisms are fair. Some are not.

But so far there is one thing missing from the critics and the leaks – what is their alternative? Even if GDS has made mistakes, got things wrong and not delivered as much as it hoped (all things which I think GDS management would privately admit) – nobody is offering a better solution. It’s easy to point a finger and have a moan, it’s not so easy to take accountability and propose something better.

Once the election is out of the way, there will be an opportunity to take stock. GDS needs to initiate such a process – open itself up to feedback and criticism; be honest and open in public about where it needs to improve and how it intends to do so. The worst thing GDS could do is withdraw behind barriers and ignore its critics – that would be an insult to those friends and supporters who have valid observations to make. GDS is a public body, pushing forward with a programme that promises to transform public service delivery. That has to be done transparently, openly and honestly, without hubris from GDS or rancour from critics.

Some perspective

For a little perspective, the following is well worth a read. Take a look through and see what you think, before I say where it’s from.

“Mid-way through our efforts to put government online, we have done much but not as much as we would like. It’s easy to point, poke fun or make a living as a commentator on what we’ve done so far (as so many do), but much harder to see what next. My thinking is that realisation is dawning that online government is just as much about government as it is about online. That one is not different from the other. So where online services fail to get the boost that we expect, it is not necessarily a failing of implementation but just as much the fact that we have metaversed the status quo.

“The realisation that as long as online government reflects offline government, take-up will be low will, I think (hope/believe) drive a different set of changes… Issues like we have seen where technology and business issues conspired to cause enormous pain mean that we will have to rethink delivery controls. Spending will tighten as we enter another financial review round. The potential for central infrastructure will be fully realised and people will commit resource to exploiting it rather than exploiting ways to get out of it. There are other things in this storm too – some that I can see, some that I can feel and some that I can’t talk about. All of them together create a one time, once in a generation chance, to make some changes come through the system – to undo hierarchies, convoluted processes, business rigidities and long-time resistance.

“As we break down and through all of those barriers, new things will happen. The great thing is that it will be possible to see this storm unfold in real time and see what actions are put in place that might lead to the new metaverse, one that is not a reflection of the status quo. One that is genuinely new. One that places what can be done online at the heart of delivery and looks to find ways to wholesale the online service to a variety of retail channels – government people, intermediaries and the citizen or business themself. And once we are past the stigma of ‘e-government’ and we have real services working effectively and widely used, the potential for further change will become apparent. Because, as the storm is unfolding, people will be conjuring up new things that rely on new business structures and processes – things that expect walls between silos not to be there rather than assuming that they will be there and hobbling the service because of it.”

If that was published on a GDS blog following the election, nobody would be surprised. It’s not unlike the sort of article that GDS chief Mike Bracken has written in the past about the challenges and opportunities of digital government.

But that was written in July 2003, by a former government IT chief, Alan Mather, who was involved with development of several critical Whitehall IT systems that are still in use today, such as the Government Gateway and online tax self-assessment. It shows how much government IT continues to reinvent the past, and how far it still has to go to deliver what everyone knows it can and must. GDS isn’t perfect, but it’s better than what it replaced; it has achieved a lot – even if less than hoped – and right now it’s the best we have. So let’s make it better.

As Mather wrote 12 years ago: “It’s easy to point, poke fun or make a living as a commentator on what we’ve done so far (as so many do), but much harder to see what next”.

Data Center
Data Management