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Government Digital Service readies for change as its chief Mike Bracken prepares to leave

GDS is setting up executive training for senior civil servants and looking to work closely with departments to continue the digital transformation of Whitehall

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is helping to set up training courses for the civil service’s most senior leaders to teach them about the principles of digital transformation in public services, as the organisation moves into a new phase of its development.

With GDS executive director Mike Bracken leaving his job today (25 September 2015), his team is preparing for changes under its new minister, Matt Hancock.

Speaking at the Government ICT 2.0 conference in London yesterday, deputy director of government technology Andy Beale said GDS is “going to be in a different mode” as it prepares to build on the progress made under Bracken’s four-and-a-half years of leadership.

“Matt Hancock made it clear, he talked very much about working together, both the way the centre works with departments, and the centre works with itself,” said Beale, recently promoted to be deputy to government chief technology officer (CTO) Liam Maxwell.

“[Over the last four years] we've made a really great start, but I don't think we've reset the way [government] works as a business. We've got some really exciting things for the next four years coming up. Mike [Bracken] and Francis [Maude, former Cabinet Office minister] kicked the doors in, and we set expectations and showed that it could be done. Now we need to work with our colleagues [in departments]. There is phenomenal talent there.”

In a valedictory interview with Computer Weekly after announcing his departure in August, Bracken highlighted tensions between Whitehall departments and GDS as a factor in his decision to leave, warning about the risks of “reverting back to mandarin-led lands of authority”.

“We need to work differently and more collaboratively in a system that is not set up to do that. Whitehall was described to me when I started as a warring band of tribal bureaucrats held together by a common pension scheme, and there is something in that,” he said at the time.

Beale said the future of GDS lies in a “more collegiate and inclusive way of working”.

“The centre's role, GDS's role, is to get behind [departments] – we need to offer tooling, offer support, continue to offer a route to skills. We are going to be turning the volume down in the centre... but we wouldn't be where we are without a strong and active centre,” he said.

Part of that process will include educating senior civil servants in the benefits of digital change.

“Generally there's not been the disruption at boardroom level [in the civil service] that there has been in the private sector. We'll be looking at developing an executive education course at CEO level and permanent secretary level to cover some of the things we've been talking about, like value chain mapping and agile, how you actually change your business, not your technology,” said Beale.

“It’s about business transformation. There are some things we're going to do in the next couple of years that are about baking in at the top of the shop, at permanent secretary and CEO level, the same level of ambition, aspiration and expectation that we've got in the technology community.”

Beale said that GDS will focus on three themes – digital, led by Bracken’s successor Stephen Foreshew-Cain; technology under CTO Maxwell; and data. Separately, former Cabinet Office director of open data Paul Maltby was today announced as the new director of data at GDS.

Answering a question about the number of large IT outsourcing contracts that come to an end in the next few years, Beale advised IT suppliers to understand the way government now wants to work with industry.

“It’s about [us] having control and competition, not just about insourcing,” he said. “Technology and digital are the easy bits. Suppliers need to focus on the things that are genuinely hard.”

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