dade72 - Fotolia

The next steps for digital government - a question of accountability

The Government Digital Service (GDS) enters a new phase, with the departure of chief Mike Bracken and a different relationship with Whitehall in the future

The king is dead – long live the king. The Government Digital Service (GDS) started a new era this week, after its high-profile former chief Mike Bracken left on Friday 25 September 2015 after four and a half years in charge.

In the weeks leading to Bracken’s departure, the tone changed at GDS as it prepared for the next stage of its evolution. Insiders say GDS is a calmer place again, after the shockwaves in August when Bracken surprised many people by quitting, and then several of his senior managers resigned too.

Some of those insiders say the co-ordinated announcements by those key lieutenants – four of them on the same day – left a bad feeling at GDS, hitting a staff morale already winged by Bracken’s revelation. But the message now is that is all in the past, as GDS re-focuses around three core themes - digital, data and technology.

When Bracken quit, he talked to Computer Weekly about the tensions between GDS and Whitehall departments, and his fears that “mandarins” wanted digital to be led from within departmental silos, instead of from a strong, central team – and how that could never work. The language coming from GDS now is much more conciliatory, emphasising – as Bracken also did – how digital transformation has turned on a collaboration between GDS and departments all along.

Last week, deputy director of government technology Andy Beale – deputy to chief technology officer Liam Maxwell – became the first senior figure from GDS to speak publicly since Parliament returned from summer recess. Beale said GDS is “going to be in a different mode”; that its future 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,” he said.

Head of the civil service Jeremy Heywood also talked of a "different phase" for GDS, in remarks reported by "You can’t run the whole of digital from the Cabinet Office. No permanent secretary could be in charge of departments, unless they’ve got a real grip on the digital agenda of their own department. It’s so core to their mission," he said.

Ahead of chancellor George Osborne’s spending review and autumn statement in November 2015, we’re unlikely to hear much more formally announced about the future remit, scope and budget of GDS.

But some insights can be gleaned elsewhere.

Digital transformation

Michael Beaven was director of the transformation programme at GDS until he left in August – a departure planned for some months before Bracken’s announcement, and unrelated to the other resignations. In that role, he was Bracken’s right-hand man for four years, responsible for the exemplar programme – the digital transformation of 25 of the highest volume transactional services in government; a programme on which GDS’s first few years would largely be judged.

His role at GDS was primarily about liaising with the departments responsible for those transactions and generating the sort of collaborative approach that GDS now wants to be seen as its raison d’etre.

Beaven is back in the private sector, as director of digital at Methods Digital, one of the new breed of digital consultancies working with central and local government to help bring new approaches to technology, digital and data in the public sector.

Michael Beaven

"GDS needs to mature. Digital needs to go from being disruptive to being essential"

Michael Beaven,
ex-GDS transformation director

Interviewed by Computer Weekly, Beaven shared insights into the future of the GDS. Although he wasn’t around when Bracken quit, he knows it led to difficulties for the team.

“Mike and I had a bit of a philosophical fireside chat some time toward the back end of last year. We had carried this thing for four years between us - he did the Whitehall bit, I did the convincing departments they could deliver stuff better. Someone else needed to get on with the torch-carrying and taking stuff forward. I wasn't around for any of the drama that happened afterwards but it's been tough for a lot of the people inside GDS. He was quite a visible and vocal strong leader,” he said.

For Beaven, new leadership – under executive director Stephen Foreshew-Cain, previously Bracken’s chief operating officer – represents a natural next step in GDS and the development of digital government.

“A lot of people at the time [Bracken left] said GDS must constantly disrupt, and I don't agree with that. GDS needs to mature. Digital needs to go from being disruptive to being essential, that’s what needs to happen in government,” he said.

“It doesn't need to be some kind of, ‘Oh look at that!’ It needs to be: ‘If we don't do that, we're screwed’.

"It needs to move into the mainstream and be part of how we do things now. My team managed to move a lot of big Whitehall departments to the point of saying: ‘We get this now – what do we need to do?’”

Government as a platform

GDS is moving from a focus on transactions to platforms – the government as a platform (GaaP) strategy at the heart of some of Bracken’s frustrations with civil service culture. Beaven is better placed than most to understand the challenges ahead in getting departmental buy-in to GaaP.

“Departments looked at some of the GaaP stuff and thought it was fascinating and great, but they said: 'What I want right now is half a dozen of you in a room, with my frontline people talking about how we can move our thing forward,'” he said.

“The whole culture and structure and governance of the civil service is not conducive to [working together]. All vertical organisations have that endemic problem - they’re not set up to do that.

"I had a long career in Lloyds Bank, and the credit card division would never say: ‘We'll build that for personal lending as well.’ You’ve got to get those departments to collaborate, and that isn't an easy job. That's why you do need something in the centre. The answer is not technology, it's around getting people to collaborate and work together.”

Beaven believes his work with departments on digital transactions shows how it can be done.

“If you get one joint project between two departments off the ground then you're getting somewhere. What GDS can do as a central force is de-badge it as a departmental project. The minute it becomes one department’s project, the other departments say: 'We don't want to do that.' But if you badge it as a GDS thing, it neutralises that,” he said.

“The value of GDS is in an unthreatening programme structure that says we can collaborate because I'm not being subservient to anyone. There are tactics and ways of doing that, but don't underestimate the size of the task. You can't defeat that overnight. You can't tell permanent secretaries to stop protecting their minister and delivering the targets they’ve been set."

"When you look at the last four years of GDS, there’s been a lot of great stuff, but the important thing was showing things can be done differently.

"We proved that departments and front-line civil servants can learn these skills with a bit of support and can churn out services as a good as Amazon or Google or anybody else. The broader impact of GDS has been turning round a lot of misconceptions about what can and can't be achieved.

"I take the misconception that departments will never work together as the next one to be turned around. It’s a fiendishly difficult task.”

Internal incubator

Beaven sees the future of GDS as more of an advisory and support service, and as an internal incubator for digital developments – rather than the extended and sometimes overly complex delivery unit it became.

“You do need a bit of an incubator in GDS to try stuff and see how you do it. The prevailing procurement environment still makes it hard to do that in departments,” he said.

"GDS has a role for that sort of frontier-breaking. It has a role to play around standards and controls. That adoption of open standards – making sure things can interoperate – is a really key role. You need someone to do that in the centre. You can't tell 22 Whitehall departments to go and find some standards.

“But getting departments to do stuff themselves is the only way you get there in the end, because that's where the accountability is. That was always a tricky thing in GDS – if I'm telling the CEO of Student Loans Company, for example, what to do, I'm not the one who gets sacked if it goes wrong. You need that balance of accountability to be right.”

Read more about digital government

The US and UK have announced plans to work together on digital government initiatives.

Mike Bracken, the outgoing director of the Government Digital Service, talked exclusively to Computer Weekly about his departure from Whitehall.

The government has made £18.6bn year-on-year savings, with £1.7bn coming from GDS-led efficiency and reform.

And that is perhaps the biggest challenge for the next phase of digital government. No matter how good GDS is – how big or small its budget – nothing will change the fact that departments are ultimately responsible for delivering public services.

Many of those who helped create GDS did so after highlighting the lack of accountability from the big technology suppliers that dominated government IT. GDS needs to find the right balance between acknowledging departmental accountability, and taking accountability for being the central enabling force that makes digital transformation happen. That’s not necessarily down to GDS to achieve – those decisions ultimately lie at ministerial level with Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock, and with Whitehall leadership in civil service CEO John Manzoni.

But there’s no doubt there is still work to do in departments. More than 200 digital experts have been recruited to departments in the last four years – with help from the GDS – but the digital message has yet to permeate throughout, according to Beaven.

“There are pockets of people who get it. But in my latter weeks in GDS I found the conversation was totally different. I spent four years in a bit of a siege mentality trying to get people in departments to do things. But in the last couple of months it was more like: ‘Can you help us? When can you get here?’” he said.

“You do need a shared capability platform, but I think there’s a strong appetite in departments to embrace transformation using digital technologies. It’s a business transformation where you bring tech and business together, and the conversation has to be about business process, user need and technology, discussed at the same time.”

Departmental accountability

In the immediate aftermath of Bracken’s departure, much speculation and rumour saw fingers pointed at John Manzoni – who became CEO in October 2014 - as the architect of Bracken’s downfall. According to insiders, there developed tension between the two over Bracken’s plans for GaaP, but Beaven insists that Manzoni is not the bad guy he has been portrayed as in some quarters.

“John has highlighted departmental accountability – it's not workable for the centre to meddle in departmental projects, when the centre can just walk away,” he said.

"You have to get that accountability right. If you want to make people do things differently, you have to measure them on that. That's a hard nut to crack but he has that in his sights. And he's finding his way through government, which can be a frightening experience. I've seen him operate and been quite impressed - he's straight talking.

"John being seen as the bête noire of Mike leaving is probably not overly justified, because there's a lot of stuff goes on that you don't know about.”

Beaven acknowledges that GDS had developed a negative reputation in some parts of the civil service, but he is convinced – as was Bracken – that it still has a vital role to play, and needs to have the backing to deliver.

“You have to mature the thing – make it less of the enfant terrible in the middle of Whitehall, more of the normal way to do things, and say we're here to help you do it. That's what GDS should become,” he said.

“I'd be devastated if they came out of the spending review and said: 'We’re not doing that anymore.'

"What an opportunity lost that would be. In four years, we went from a laggard to a world leader. To snuff that out for the sake of government money when the GDS budget is just a rounding error compared to departmental spend.

"It needs to carry on doing the great stuff it's been doing, but in a different way. Now it's about maturing it, making it part of the mainstream, so people don't see it as risky or threatening – just the way we do things.

"That's the big tough cultural change piece.”

The GDS digital exemplars - success or failure?

Mike Beaven was in charge of the digital exemplar programme that aimed to get 25 government transactions transformed into digital services. By the end of the last Parliament, just 20 were available to the public, with five of those still classified as beta test versions. Critics pointed to several services as being little more than a new web front end on a pre-existing system. But Beaven defends the exemplars, saying that what was delivered for helping citizens outweighs any criticisms about how many of the 25 were completed.

“You have to be honest about the endeavour – it was to get a wide cross-section of government functions to think differently about how they service citizens. Whether you launch one or 25, it doesn't matter, but you get wrapped in to that whole government target thing. The fact that you have front-line staff involved in multi-disciplinary teams with developers and user researchers, changing the way people apply for services – such as lasting power of attorney – is far more significant than a bunch of numbers on a nice website,” he said.

“Getting the service in front of citizens so they can use it and benefit from it is the important thing. If people say only 15 made it to live – that's missing the point. Over six million people have used those services, and that's a significant chunk of the UK, and that's just doing 20 services. You have to think about it in terms of the impact it has made on people's lives.”

Read more on IT for government and public sector