No matter what happens next, GDS's long-term future is not assured

No matter what happens next for the Government Digital Service (GDS), you can assume three things will be true:

1 – The Cabinet Office will make an announcement full of praise for GDS and express its commitment to digital government. It will probably say that a combination of GDS’s central influence combined with the work in Whitehall departments is the key to making digital a success. The announcement will reinforce the vital role of GDS and remind us of the £450m budget allocated in the spending review. There may even be a quote from a minister extolling what a great job GDS has done.

2 – Civil  service chief executive John Manzoni will continue to believe that digital government is best delivered through departments, and that at best GDS should be a small standards-setting unit in the centre of government. Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) permanent secretary Robert Devereux will still lobby for most of that £450m budget to be given back to departments. DWP and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) – the two most significant users of IT in Whitehall – will plough their own furrow, being cordial to GDS but ignoring them where they can.

3 – GDS’s future will not be secure. It may very well survive the latest attempts to carve it up, but its position will be weakened by the latest battles over the best way to deliver digital. There will be some form of compromise to keep the likes of DWP and HMRC publicly onside for the time being – even if that compromise is not made public.

The response from the Cabinet Office to my latest story about the battle for GDS has been interesting in itself. It said, “categorically” there is no break up of GDS planned, and that GDS will continue to look after the key digital projects despite numerous insiders warning that HMRC would like to take over the Verify ID system and DWP would like to run the website.

You can believe what the Cabinet Office said – but the story only said that those options had been seriously discussed, not that they will definitely happen. The fact that these options were on the table – six years after GDS was created, 12 months after its former leader Mike Bracken quit, and barely eight months since that £450m vote of confidence from former chancellor George Osborne – is highly significant.

Look at some of the elements of my story that have not been denied:

  • HMRC and DWP were specifically excluded from the business case that led to GDS receiving that £450m, and therefore have no obligation to conform to the GDS plan.
  • HMRC’s digital tax accounts service failed GDS’s service assessment but was still allowed to progress to “beta” testing against GDS’s wishes.
  • HMRC and DWP are both dubious about Verify – the central identity assurance system – and would prefer to develop their own variants.

HMRC and DWP are by far the biggest users of IT in Whitehall – without them on board, GDS cannot be said to be leading the digital transformation of government – only of those smaller departments that don’t have the muscles of HMRC and DWP.

The civil service culture is entirely siloed in mentality – permanent secretaries, especially in major departments, hold full accountability for the performance of their department, and have been raised through their career to believe that the only way to meet those expectations is by having full control of everything the department does. They don’t like being told what to do by a central unit with different objectives and which is ultimately not accountable for delivery of departmental policy.

GDS doesn’t fit with that mentality. That’s a big reason why Mike Bracken left – he was simply fed up with fighting the same old battles with senior civil servants time and time again. He was worn down by the relentless pressure from Whitehall mandarins trying to resist change.

The civil service is made of a flexible material that bends when pushed, but returns quickly to its original shape once pressure has been removed. The latest battles over GDS are about senior civil servants testing whether now, with a new prime minister and new Cabinet in place, they have an opportunity to return to their original shape. They will probably fail this time, but they will try again.

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