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GDS will help government departments to help themselves

Government digital chief Stephen Foreshew-Cain says GDS will provide the tools and support for departments to build services, but “won’t build them all” for them

The government’s digital leaders took to the stage at the Government Digital Service’s (GDS) annual event, Sprint 16, to talk about what to expect from GDS in the future.

They said GDS will be stronger than ever before, ramping up rapid change and challenging and supporting departments to run their own digital transformation programmes, while ensuring common standards across government.

In many ways, GDS has gone from strength to strength since it was created by former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude in 2011, and has enlisted strong support from central government.

But between August and November last year, the future of GDS was uncertain. Former digital chief Mike Bracken departed unexpectedly, prompting speculation around the delivery of digital government and Whitehall support for the government-as-a-platform (GaaP) strategy.

Such speculation was buried after November’s spending review, when it was revealed that GDS was to get a £450m budget to deliver a digital government, a substantially larger sum than in previous years.

Last year, the then deputy director of government technology, Andy Beale, said GDS was “going to be in a different mode” with a more “collegiate way of working”.

At Sprint 16, the government’s new digital chief, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, shed some light on what that means. He said the centre would back up departments and “give you the tools you need to do the right thing for your users”.

Talking about building new services across departments, he told the audience: “We won’t be building them all. I’m going to say that again, because I get asked it a lot. Let me be very clear: we’re not going to be building them all in GDS. We are going to make sure they get built. 

GDS as custodian and curator

“I am proudest when I see GDS fulfilling the role of custodian of our shared platforms and curator of our shared knowledge and practices, providing the resources that can support you in delivery, supporting service transformation around user needs, as in departments, agencies and other bodies.”

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock said that although the centre was there to “support and challenge”, departments knew their users, their policy and their business.

“The job of government as a whole is to use that information that we have, both from the hardest end of the data that we hold – all the way through to the tacit understanding of what makes a particular policy area work – and use this revolution that we are having in technology that is available to improve it as much as possible,” he said.

GDS bosses were careful to point out that the support is there for those that need it and it isn’t about forcing anyone to do anything, but rather about “business transformation”.

“I think of it as business transformation because, ultimately, digital transformation works when we change the culture, when we change the way services are operated, and we use the technology and the platforms that we have in order to improve the way we deliver services to citizens,” said Hancock.

Platforms being built include Gov.uk Pay, which will begin taking payments soon, Gov.uk Notify and Verify, the government’s new identity verification platform

Trying to support departments

The support given by GDS has not always been appreciated by those on the receiving end. There is a culture clash between the GDS team and departments, which often have their own ways of doing things.

GDS CTO Liam Maxwell told the audience that it is GDS’s job to “reduce friction” across government.

“We have friction throughout what we do, we have friction in the way we encounter services, in the way we buy services and the way we design services,” he said.

Maxwell knows first-hand what friction can do. A National Audit Office report, published last December, showed that when Maxwell and his GDS team were sent in to help the Rural Payments digital service a few weeks before it was due to go live, it caused “rifts between the departments”.

The dispute between the programme leaders was branded “inappropriate and childish” and contributed to the delay of the service.

Open for business

But if there is one thing that is clear from Sprint 16, it is that GDS is working hard to get people “on board” with digital.

The government has worked hard to open up its data, having released more than 20,000 datasets so far, and will continue to do so.

Maxwell talked of “openness” across the board, from using “open as our main tool of disruption” to using open source, open standards and a common infrastructure.

“We are sharing components, we are sharing our infrastructure,” he said. “In order to do that, our approach works best if we share and if we have open standards.”

Transform relationship

While Hancock said the aim of GDS is to “transform the relationship between the citizen and the state”, the centre also wants to make it easier for civil servants and departments to do their jobs.

Hancock said he had been in four different departments, all with different systems, organised in different ways and with different levels of interoperability.

The Common Technology Services programme, described as the “stationery cupboard of government”, aims to standardise ways of working across government and introduce collaboration tools, document management systems and other services that can be shared across departments.

Maxwell added: “It’s about helping leadership and civil servants across government to think of IT not as just something you add in, but actually where technology can help you deliver the transformation it needs to have.”

Although the long-awaited GDS strategy, which was originally billed as being due before Christmas 2015, has yet to arrive, it is clear that Whitehall’s digital chiefs have a plan.  

“We want to create the government of the internet – not the web, but the internet,” Maxwell said. 

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