No surprises, few measurable targets, but one big challenge for the new government digital strategy

After another summer of turmoil at the Government Digital Service (GDS), with several senior executives leaving and a new chief brought in to the surprise of many, expectations for its new strategy are understandably high.

You would presume the top civil servants in the Cabinet Office have equally high expectations after deciding that Kevin Cunnington was the right person to lead the digital transformation of government, instead of predecessor Stephen Foreshew-Cain who was unceremoniously dumped.

But if the leaked early draft of the new strategy is anything to go by, you have to wonder if the response wouldn’t be: “Really? Is that it?”

The draft plan contains no revelations or surprises; no stunning new insights or fresh ideas. It contains few measurable targets. One would hope that, at some point during the internal discussions leading to the final version, someone might suggest putting some dates and measures in to track progress.

Frequent use of words like “better” and “improve” are not enough – with £450m to spend, GDS needs to offer more than good intentions. How will services be better, by when, and how will we measure their improvement?

When talking to Computer Weekly recently, Cunnington acknowledged that the expectations on him are high – with visible change expected by the end of the current Parliament.

“What I’m trying to create is a narrative where the Cabinet Office minister [Ben Gummer] can say to people that Britain will be very different in 2020 because we’ll be a much more digital government,” he said.

It’s important to point out that the document seen by Computer Weekly is not the final version – it has yet to receive feedback from Whitehall departments, and will be further discussed within the Cabinet Office before it’s finalised. The version due to be published before Christmas could be very different – although that in itself would be instructive, to see what was changed, added or taken out, and more importantly, by whom.

Of the five objectives described in some detail in the draft, four are little different from what GDS has been doing for some time – government as a platform; data and identity; digital skills; and improving the technology used by civil servants.

Those four could have been published as part of a GDS strategy at any point over the past year – I’m told that much of what’s in there derives from an earlier document written by former strategy director Janet Hughes, one of the now-departed executives.

Even what appears to be the newest objective – “end-to-end transformation” of public services and back-office functions, is a goal that has been talked about for a long time, even if it’s not been formalised in an official strategy. In many ways it’s the critical part of the plan, the aspect intended to deter persistent criticism that GDS does little more than make prettier websites.

But it also encapsulates the biggest challenge – and surely, the one that Cunnington has been brought in to deliver – that of convincing departments and their permanent secretaries to agree to a plan that could see much of their back-office capability overhauled and potentially combined with other departments.

The siloed nature of the civil service is widely seen as the biggest blocker to digital transformation of government – but the siloed nature of the civil service is what most permanent secretaries are employed to sustain. The “permsecs” are effectively CEOs of their departments, answerable only to their ministers, responsible for all financial and budgetary affairs and for delivery of the services for which the department is responsible. Theirs is not a naturally collaborative role across departments.

Remember too that permsecs are also responsible for the Brexit implications for their departments, a task likely to be given greater priority than any digital overhaul.

And it’s those same permsecs – some of them, at least – who have actively lobbied to diminish the influence of GDS. The appointment of Cunnington – previously director of business transformation at the Department for Work and Pensions – was widely perceived as a compromise towards the permsecs by bringing a departmental man into the centre to run GDS, with all his understanding of what it’s like to be in the silo.

Some of the phraseology in the draft strategy cuts right across the conventional thinking of permsecs in big departments, for example:

  • “Transforming the way government delivers… instead of being constrained by current organisational boundaries.”
  • “When services are designed around the user, they often cut across organisational boundaries.”
  • “We need to design services as a whole, underpinned by deep, whole organisation transformation.”
  • “Government needs to change the way it delivers and operates itself. That means deep transformation that includes the digitisation of not just the front end or the service, but the back-office functions as well.”
  • “Full transformation is about more than just the service a user experiences – it means ‘deep transformation’ of the organisation that provides it.”

Few outside observers would disagree with any of those statements, but they could prove to be the most contentious. Credit is due to Cunnington for including them – and even more credit if they are still there in the final version.

Full credit would be due if permsecs and departments actively buy in to such statements as well, and subsequently implement them. The digital transformation of government will not happen unless they do.