GDS: the devil is in the detail

While the Government Digital Service’s (GDS) annual Sprint conference showed that there is still great enthusiasm and drive for getting digital “right” across Whitehall, this year’s event lacked a crucial element.

Without relying too heavily on clichés:the devil is in the detail, and the detail was what I found most lacking.

Sprint 16 did have some new announcements, such as Matt Hancock telling Computer Weekly about the launch of a Digital Leadership Academy, and announcing the work on creating open data sources, or “canonical registers”, ensuring data is stored once, and kept up to date centrally.

And GDS boss Stephen Foreshew-Cain re-iterated the point that GDS, and digital transformation across government , is moving towards a model of increased shared responsibility by telling the audience “we won’t build them all,” and rather provide the support to make sure the right tools get built.

This point, however, was already signalled heavily last autumn by the now newly-appointed deputy chief technology officer, Andy Beale, saying that GDS would be in “a different mode” and that the future of GDS lies in a “more collegiate and inclusive way of working”.

Previous Sprint events have usually given a very clear picture of exactly what and how GDS plans to do over the next year. And a strategy, or detailed plans on its delivery of a digital government, was certainly what was expected.

In October last year, parliamentary secretary George Bridges told the House of Lords that GDS would announce its strategy going forward by Christmas 2015.

“Plans will be announced before Christmas that will set out our strategy,” he said.

Christmas came and went without any further clarification and Computer Weekly got clear signals from several Whitehall sources that a strategy was most likely to be announced at Sprint 16.  

The centre’s detailed plans are not the only ones missing. Last month, civil service chief exec John Manzoni told the Public Accounts Committee that single departmental plans, likely to provide more detail on each department’s digital strategy, were due to be published on 22 January. Fast forward a month and no plans have been made public.

The delay setting out clear plans begs the question of why. The most likely answer, although this is merely speculative, is that GDS is still working out how to spend its £450m budget, generously handed to them by George Osborne as part of the autumn spending review.

As revealed by Computer Weekly last year, GDS plans £3.5bn in efficiency savings on the back of its budget. As far as my understanding goes, the three core components that budget will be spent on are Government as a platform (GaaP), Common Technology Services (CTS) and the identity verification scheme Verify.

As previously reported, GDS aims for £1.3bn in savings from the GaaP programme, and £1.1bn in savings each from CTS and Verify. Should GDS accomplish these savings, it will certainly be a significant feat.

Getting this right is hugely important, not just because there are plenty of taxpayer’s money involved, but because GDS can’t afford to fail. If we are to have the digital revolution that’s so often talked about, Whitehall needs to lead the way. 

In order to get people on board and to drive the culture change, both the public and departments need to know exactly what, when and how GDS plans to do this.

I for one, am waiting in suspense to seeing more a detailed strategy from  the centre.