So, the first phase of changing the Government Digital Service (GDS) is underway, and it’s clear there is a lot more to come.
The Cabinet Office pitched the latest news as minister Ben Gummer’s announcement, but this move obviously comes from Kevin Cunnington, the new GDS chief, controversially appointed last month. It’s the first indication of what he has is mind.
The Digital Academy that Cunnington established when he was in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is coming into GDS – as foreseen by Computer Weekly. In many ways it’s a logical move – giving GDS a service to educate and train civil servants in digital transformation – but it’s also another step in the steady move to make GDS operate more to the liking of the big departments such as DWP. The academy was set up to train DWP civil servants in Cunnington’s DWP version of “digital”, which is not necessarily the same as his GDS predecessors.
The GDS team is being moved out of its Holborn HQ in central London and shifted east to Aldgate – described in the press release as “modern and expanded offices to create a new digital HQ and digital hub”. Such a move has been rumoured for some time, and the relocation will not be to the liking of a lot of people at the current Aviation House building.
But perhaps the most significant part of the announcement is the rebranding of the long-awaited and much delayed GDS digital strategy, which will now be known as the Government Digital Transformation Strategy, due out before the end of the year.
“More and more we are going to make the work from GDS about transformation – not just digital,” said Cunnington.
It was recently confirmed that Andrew Besford, formerly head of business design at DWP, has moved full-time into GDS. Besford was Cunnington’s strategy guy – you can bet that his fingerprints will be all over the new plan.
It’s a little difficult to know exactly what is Besford’s remit, though. In recent weeks I’ve asked the Cabinet Office nine times by email to provide further details of his brief, what his new job title is, his job description, and whether the job was advertised or not – all information that for such a senior civil servant is meant to be in the public domain. I’ve yet to receive an answer.
In Cunnington’s DWP, transformation was more about redesigning services, changing working practices and so forth – not so much about developing software or building nice websites. Development for the digital version of Universal Credit has been led by DWP director general for digital technology Mayank Prakash, not by Cunnington, who was responsible for the significant business transformation involved in the new benefits scheme.
Could this subtle change of language indicate that the new GDS will do a lot less software development? It would certainly support Cabinet Office permanent secretary John Manzoni’s belief that such work should be done by departments, not by the centre.
Might GDS become more of a central lead agency for transformation across government – rather than the home of the developers building digital systems to be used across government? We’ll find out later in the year.
While such a move would disappoint many in GDS – and perhaps some of its former leadership – there has for some time been an undercurrent of criticism from outside GDS from people who feel it has focused too much on building websites and not enough on the wider transformation agenda.
Whatever Cunnington does, it will have its detractors and supporters – GDS has in its five-year existence become a lightning rod for such scrutiny and a focus for much internal and external dispute. But one thing we can say with increasing confidence is that Cunnington’s GDS is going to be quite different from how it was before.