Patryk Kosmider -

GDS has lost momentum, MPs told

There are still significant culture issues in government and the Government Digital Service has stopped supporting departments to do the right thing, Science and Technology Committee hears

A Science and Technology Committee probe into digital government and the Government Digital Service (GDS) has been told the centre has lost its strength.

The committee, which is running an inquiry into digital government, held its first evidence session today (27 November 2018).

Giving evidence to the committee, former GDS deputy director Tom Loosemore, now partner at Public Digital, spoke candidly of how the centre had lost momentum and strong leadership.

“We have lost momentum. One of the reasons for that is the lack of political priority,” he told the committee, adding that he recognised Brexit was a big priority at the moment, but that during his time in government “you could rely upon a general understanding that this was a government priority”.

Departments lack support

One of the key issues, he said, was that GDS and the centre were no longer providing strong support to departments and agencies wanting to work on IT projects in an agile and iterative fashion.

“If you’re in a department trying to do the right thing, the grain is still far too against you than it should be. You still need support from the centre, and I’m not sure that support is active,” he said.

Loosemore was part of GDS at the very beginning, under the leadership of former director Mike Bracken. The organisation, he said, was created to be disruptive at the start, and when Bracken and his leadership team left in 2015, “it was the right time”.  

The organisation was ready to move on, said Loosemore, to no longer simply disrupt, but to support departments doing the right thing themselves, then under GDS leader Stephen Foreshew-Cain.

“That’s what I’m worried has stopped,” he said.

Loosemore added that although lots of good work had been done by GDS over the years, there was still an “enormous way to go”.

Providing written evidence to the committee, analyst firm GlobalData said GDS had somewhat “lost its way” and “arguably lost the confidence of government”. 

“GDS seems neutered, its leadership silent,” GlobalData said in its written evidence, adding that current GDS boss Kevin Cunnington’s talk at the centre’s flagship Sprint 18 event was “an opportunity singularly missed and rather epitomised GDS’s current lack of testosterone, of shouting from the rooftops, of being a guerrilla organisation”.

“Arguably, instead of the days when GDS was able to ride the waves of turmoil in government, and indeed to create some turbulence of its own, it has become a small boat in danger of capsizing in stormy seas,” GlobalData’s evidence said.

Spending controls

One of the major differences GDS made was introducing spending controls and approval processes for Whitehall IT projects.

The measures, which were first introduced in 2010 and reinforced by the then Cabinet office minister Francis Maude in 2012, meant any department wanting to spend more than £100m on IT contracts would need approval from GDS.

In 2014/15, GDS provided a total of £599m of savings through wide-scale transformation and the implementation of controls. The following year, spending controls saved the government £339m.  

The spending control function, however, has changed over the past few years. In 2016, under the leadership of Cunnington, GDS announced it was “changing the way things are done” when it comes to spending controls, which would now be more about “collaboration”.  

Loosemore told the Science and Technology Committee that control of spending was one of the “most important levers GDS had to encourage departments to do the right thing”, through challenging constructively how departments and agencies spent their money.

“That’s gone. Someone described to me that GDS’s spend control function was they treat them like bird watchers,” he said, adding that he found it “terrifying” because he was worried that the momentum towards using open standards, smaller companies and iterative approaches to technology projects could be changing and “could be turning the wrong way again”.

“That strong centre has weakened, a centre able to encourage departments to do the right thing,” he added.

Leadership issues

Loosemore told the committee that another issue with tech procurement was HM Treasury and the deep-rooted business case process. “The Treasury likes to spend capital expenditure,” he said. “This world is not about capital expenditure, it’s about developing teams and operational expenditure.”

He added that the process also meant departments had to write long business cases for five to 10 years, which are “just made up”.

Although government procurement has improved in recent years, there are still major problems, according to Loosemore. 

“There are far too many bits of government that think they can write and design the service upfront in a contract, and big suppliers are more than happy to deliver it to you, and when it doesn’t work, they charge you a change fee,” he said.

Part of the problem with how government is currently working, and its siloed approach, lies with the leadership, said Loosemore.

“There’s a view, that’s very persistent at a permanent secretary level, that their department is sovereign, and that is far too prevalent. And that’s cultural,” he said.

When asked by the committee how that culture could be challenged, Loosemore said it had to start with GDS and the role it plays in supporting and challenging the status quo.

“There has been a wilful, deliberate misdirection of the centre in supporting departments,” he said.

Loosemore added that this came from the very top, as the chief executive of the civil service, John Manzoni, “wishes departmental sovereignty remains”.

“The buck stops there,” he said.  

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