The general election has passed by, new ministers are in place, and so the Government Digital Service (GDS) is coming back out of its shell.
As it embarks on a new parliamentary cycle, GDS is a very different beast from the last time it emerged from election purdah – which was only 2015, of course. It has a different chief and an entirely different leadership team; it’s in a new location, Aldgate in London’s East End; and its language has changed too – the emphasis shifting from digital government to government transformation.
This week saw GDS reaching outside Whitehall for the first time since the election to push the government transformation strategy, launched back in February by then Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer to “restore faith in democracy”. The strategy survives, even if Gummer didn’t – having lost his Ipswich seat, where clearly democracy was alive and well.
At a briefing for IT suppliers in London, GDS director general Kevin Cunnington went through some of his team’s priorities. Press weren’t invited to the event, but Computer Weekly has talked to some of the suppliers that attended.
Their view? They welcomed GDS reaching out to them after an extended quiet period, and said it’s good that Cunnington and team wanted to talk to suppliers and encourage their involvement in the strategy.
But they also said they didn’t learn much that was new, and left feeling there were more questions than answers – as one guest put it, they were more interested by what wasn’t said at the meeting.
In particular, the spectre of Brexit loomed large. According to our sources, Cunnington acknowledged that everything GDS expects to work on may have to be rescoped and reprioritised as the results of Brexit planning become clearer. GDS told delegates it is working with Whitehall departments to assess their digital needs in the light of Brexit negotiations.
The brutal reality is that almost everything GDS is working on remains pending those discussions.
Cunnington acknowledged some of GDS’s other challenges too – namely, historic under-investment in data, and a shortage of as many as 4000 people with digital skills across Whitehall. One delegate said Cunnington mentioned a figure of 1600 databases across government containing personal data of citizens, all in different formats, and the challenge of making all that data accessible and usable across government.
He said the new junior minister in charge of GDS, Caroline Nokes, had emphasised the importance of improving the citizen experience of digital services and making them more inclusive. The Conservative party election manifesto commitments on digital will be a particular area of focus.
But the suppliers we talked to were concerned at the lack of any mention of previous GDS policies for working with SMEs, nor about the Digital Marketplace and G-Cloud procurement frameworks. There was also no talk about disaggregating existing outsourcing deals with the big system integrators. One delegate said the “mood music” in these areas seemed to be changing.
As Computer Weekly reported, suppliers also highlighted a certain naivety in GDS’s suggestion that they adopt the GDS government as a platform (GaaP) services within their own product offerings. Most suppliers already use commercial services that perform a similar function, and GDS’s inability to provide contractual guarantees around support or service levels makes it almost impossible for suppliers to persuade their clients to use the GDS tools.
GDS said the GaaP tools are receiving investment, and it’s clear there is pressure from above to rapidly increase adoption of the services across Whitehall, to justify the cost and effort of having built systems that critics argue could easily have been purchased on the commercial market to serve a similar purpose.
The shift of emphasis to transformation is welcome – it’s what GDS is meant to be about, after all – but questions remain about relationships with departments and the willingness of the biggest departments to work with GDS. Cunnington said that departments will be “encouraged” to work with GDS, and that he would take a “collegiate” and collaborative approach, said one source.
One supplier gave a notable summary of where GDS sits – digitising government websites and services was the “low-hanging fruit”, they said; but transformation is the big stuff, and it’s not yet clear what GDS will do differently to make that change happen.