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What next for GDS?

Digital government has lost momentum, according to MPs. As the Government Digital Service enters its “third era”, what will it do to regain its authority and deliver real change?

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Imagine: you’re about to present the future of digital government in the UK, to an audience of 600, with a keynote speech to come from the Cabinet Office minister, in one of London’s premier event venues. The lights dim, the crowd is hushed, and a video starts silently on the auditorium screen. And stays silent.

A black-clad technician creeps onto the darkened stage, plugs the speaker cable into the laptop on the lectern, and slinks off again into the wings. Technology, eh?

Not the most auspicious start for the new director general of the Government Digital Service (GDS), Alison Pritchard, you might think. It turns out, however, she writes comedy as a hobby – and what better prompt for a gag could she have?

Digital government followers, meanwhile, could hardly have a better metaphor – a big promise, followed by disappointment, and then a fresh start. So after all that, what does the future hold for GDS?

Expectations are as high as they have been since GDS was set up in 2011, with a brief to make government “digital by default”. The organisation now employs over 800 people – more than some Whitehall departments. In the 2015 spending review, GDS was given a budget of £450m to the end of the 2019/2020 financial year, with expectations that it would deliver at least £3.5bn in savings.

But in July this year, a report from MPs on the House of Commons science and technology committee concluded that GDS was losing authority and the ability to deliver digital change, leading to a slowing of digital momentum across Whitehall. “It is clear that the current digital service offered by the government has lost momentum and is not transforming the citizen-state relationship as it could,” said committee chairman Norman Lamb.

However, in his speech last week at Sprint 19, GDS’s annual conference, Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden said the digital transformation of government “remains one of my top priorities”. Clearly, it’s down to GDS to prove the science and technology committee wrong.

The third era

Pritchard told the audience at Sprint 19 that the organisation has now entered its “third era” – a distinction that conforms to the transitions in leadership over the past four years.

The first era, according to Pritchard, saw GDS as a digital disruptor, trying to shake up attitudes and approaches to technology across government – a period led by the first director of GDS, Mike Bracken, and his shortlived successor Stephen Foreshew-Cain.

In its second phase, GDS focused on building what is now known as the digital, data and technology (DDaT) profession across government, and developing the digital capabilities of civil service staff, primarily through the GDS Academy, established by the then director general of GDS, Kevin Cunnington. It was during this period that the drift in purpose and authority claimed by the science and technology committee took place.

Now, the third era, led for now by Pritchard (her role is currently an interim appointment), is about establishing digital as a function across Whitehall, and “operationalising that capability”. To that end, civil service CEO John Manzoni has also decided to create a new job, of government chief digital and information officer (CDIO), to oversee both the work of GDS and digital development across Whitehall. For the first time, digital will be led by someone with the authority and seniority of a permanent secretary.

“That journey of disruptor, through to profession, through to function, is a reflection that at scale and at pace, you will see us operate at a level that crosses boundaries, and across departments,” said Pritchard.

“Many of the challenges we faced have been in the way that government works and functions. Bringing in a government CDIO will help that function at a significantly senior level.”

Resistance from Whitehall

When Bracken left GDS, he was frustrated by the resistance from Whitehall mandarins to his reforms. Getting departments to follow behind GDS’s directives was a cultural step too far for the traditionally siloed civil service. Cunnington tried to take a more low-key approach, aiming to support departments in their digital ambitions at their own pace.

For Pritchard, the goal of “operationalising” capability means greater collaboration and active working across departments, an objective that, she believes, has been helped by Brexit. Her previous job at GDS was leading the digital overhaul needed as part of the UK’s planned exit from the EU.

“EU exit has been an important accelerator to that function,” she said.

With Brexit an overwhelming priority, many of those traditional inter-departmental barriers were broken down as part of preparations for the current 31 October departure date.

“We've got pockets of the organisation that are running hotter than others because of the nature of EU exit,” said Pritchard.

“We've also been able to progress things like the sharing of resource across departments, through a clearing hub model that's been tested several times now. And that's improving.”

Five pillars

To bring a greater focus to GDS going forward – before and after Brexit – Pritchard has identified five core “pillars” to underpin the vision for how government will operate digitally by 2030. The pillars, and their primary objectives as outlined at Sprint 19, are:

  • Security: “We will keep our data, users and services safe by strengthening existing cross-government standards and capabilities.”
  • Tackling legacy IT: “We will improve interoperability across government. This will reduce our reliance on outdated systems which act as barriers to innovation and inhibit effective transformation.”
  • Digital identity: “We will provide a digital identity solution that can be used seamlessly across government services.”
  • Data: “We will make data more accessible and easier to use, while ensuring security and privacy of user data. A stronger cross-government data infrastructure creates more informed and data-driven decisions.”
  • User experience: “The government of the future will deliver personalised services to proactively meet user needs.”

“There is a journey on all of these activities, but none of them start from scratch,” said Pritchard.

“They all need to accelerate in places in collaboration with others. These things make sense to be joined up, trusted and responsive. It’s difficult to argue that they’re not the right thing to do.”

Unambitious date

Indeed, few would disagree with those goals. But equally, all of GDS’s previous leaders could – and pretty much did – say the same things. For an organisation that’s been around for eight years already and wants to work “at pace”, achieving those aims by 2030 doesn’t seem especially ambitious.

“Government will be joined-up, trusted and responsive to user needs. In 2030. Not wrong – but not a new ambition,” said Stefan Czerniawski, a former director of e-government strategy and currently strategy director at the Department for Work and Pensions until he leaves the civil service at the end of September.

“The important question is not the ambition, or even the route to the ambition, but why the next decade is going to deliver what the past decade hasn’t.”

In many of those core areas, there are important questions still to be answered.

Former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who set up GDS, took aim at the big legacy IT suppliers and their outsourcing contracts as long ago as 2010. Former government chief technology officer Liam Maxwell said in 2013 that legacy outsourcing contracts would not be renewed. But many of them were – and often, because of Brexit distractions. Much of that legacy IT doesn’t want to go away.

In 2017, GDS was at the heart of a government-wide digital transformation strategy that set ambitious targets for 2020, such as recruiting a chief data officer and having 25 million users of Gov.uk Verify, GDS’s flagship digital identity scheme. Neither of these have been achieved.

It was notable that across a day of talks at Sprint 19, the troubled Verify programme was mentioned only once, in passing by GDS director of digital identity Lisa Barrett. At the start of her talk, she promised to cover “the future of Verify” and then never mentioned it again.

GDS instead wants to talk more generically about establishing ubiquitous digital identity standards across public and private sectors – preferring, it seems, not to mention the £175m that will have been spent on Verify by March 2020, nor its rapidly dwindling support from the private sector.

And in the area of user experience – which effectively means continued development and improvement of the Gov.uk website – there has already been a backlash against plans to combine web performance data with personal data from Verify accounts in order to track and target users. To GDS – with some justification – this is simply standard web practice and all about providing the sort of personalised service that users already expect from the likes of Amazon or Netflix.

So perhaps the caution in Pritchard’s vision is understandable, but as the science and technology committee and others have pointed out, maybe taxpayers should not unreasonably expect a more rapid return on their investment.

Rallying cry

With the current budget running out next year, GDS’s ability to deliver that return will be under scrutiny again.

The Boris Johnson government expects to have a short, one-year budget period in anticipation of a likely general election, and whoever wins will conduct a full spending review to lay out plans for the next Parliament – at least, that assumes a return to what was once considered normal business in government. Either way, GDS will once more have to justify its existence, and its future contribution to digital government.

In Pritchard’s rallying cry at the end of the Sprint 19 conference, she called on the digital community in Whitehall to come together and achieve the widespread change that GDS was set up to deliver.

“That trusted, joined-up and responsive mantra, and the five pillars – this is the first time we’ve spoken openly about it. You can expect far more details to emerge as we start the conversation on this particular activity” she said.

“This is, in my view, the third era for digital transformation. This is about collaborating across boundaries. How should the five pillars progress? How can we work collectively? What will make it work and what might not make it work? Let’s have that debate and really make it happen.”

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