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Revealed: The battle for GDS – how Whitehall mandarins are trying to carve up digital strategy

Insiders say senior civil servants want to break up the Government Digital Service and return IT to its previous departmental model

The future of the Government Digital Service (GDS) has been under debate in Whitehall yet again, after senior civil servants sought to use the recent ministerial reshuffle as an opportunity to carve up GDS’s central responsibility for digital strategy.

Computer Weekly has learned about pressure to break up GDS and return to the sort of model that existed before the 2010 general election, where a much smaller central policy team was responsible for strategy and standards, with all delivery returned to Whitehall departments.

Insiders say the desire to diminish GDS was led by senior civil servants at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and by civil service chief executive John Manzoni.

In recent days, Computer Weekly has talked to a number of sources with close knowledge of the latest developments, who have talked on condition of anonymity. Those sources have expressed concern that much of the work GDS has done in the past six years to change Whitehall IT and move away from the days of large-scale contracts with a few big suppliers could be reversed.

Nearly a year ago, then-GDS chief Mike Bracken quit in an attempt to protect the model of centralised, cross-government digital delivery after being told his budget would be cut significantly. Instead, Bracken built a business case before his departure that subsequently led to GDS being given a greatly increased budget of £450m in the November spending review.

However, Computer Weekly has learned that HMRC and DWP were specifically excluded from that business case – which means neither department was compelled to conform to the GDS-led digital strategy. Even without HMRC and DWP, the benefit of the GDS plan across other departments was considered sufficient to justify its increased budget.

Business case

Sources also suggest that DWP made a last-minute attempt to have that GDS business case withdrawn completely – with several insiders pointing to DWP permanent secretary Robert Devereux as a prime mover in trying to have that cash distributed among departments instead. Devereux is believed to have argued against the central remit of GDS for some time.

However, with a new prime minister in power, and a ministerial reshuffle offering an opportunity for changes to the machinery of government, a fresh land grab is under way to move key GDS responsibilities back into departments.

For example, sources suggest that HMRC could take over Gov.uk Verify – the central identity assurance service, which both HMRC and DWP have been reluctant to buy into. HMRC is already investing in building its own identity system, in parallel to Verify, say our sources.

Verify is designed only for individual citizen identity, while HMRC also requires a business verification system to replace the ageing Government Gateway system currently used – and this requirement could be used to try to justify HMRC taking control of Verify.

There have also been discussions about DWP taking control of Gov.uk, the single government website. That move would have particular significance – GDS was originally created to develop Gov.uk to replace Directgov, the previous government website that was run by DWP.

Project controls

HMRC has already started moving away from GDS’s controls over the way digital projects are managed. For example, HMRC’s online personal tax accounts service is billed as being a “beta” version – but sources say the system failed its GDS service assessment and, as such, should still be regarded as an “alpha” service, not the more advanced beta version.

John Manzoni – as both civil service CEO and Cabinet Office permanent secretary – would be expected to enforce the GDS service assessment standards, but insiders say he is not willing to hold major departments to account on behalf of GDS.

Insiders say Manzoni has been the source of much of the tension around GDS’s future. Manzoni has publicly stated that he believes in a small centre of government, with delivery devolved to departments. Sources say he “doesn’t get digital” and wanted to break up GDS when Bracken left.

Even now, it is said Manzoni does not see why the government as a platform (GaaP) strategy needs to be delivered centrally. Instead, common applications such as Verify could be developed by departments and made available for any other department to use.

For example, sources say HMRC is developing its own notification service, despite GDS recently launching its Gov.uk Notify system to perform the same function.

Bracken is believed to have had a difficult relationship with Manzoni – a relationship that was a contributory factor in Bracken’s shock resignation in August 2015. And insiders say that Bracken’s successor, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, has continued to argue the case for the centralised digital delivery model ever since, despite Manzoni’s preference to break up GDS.

New minister

The new Cabinet Office minister, Ben Gummer, is understood to be a supporter of GDS – one source claimed Gummer described GDS as “a triumph”; another that he is “excited about digital”. In theory, Gummer has the authority to overrule civil servants who want to break up GDS – much as Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister from 2010 to 2015, resisted such calls and gave GDS the political backing to grow to its current size.

But insiders say it is too early to tell which way Gummer is likely to move, or whether his immediate predecessor, Matt Hancock, may have sanctioned changes to GDS before the reshuffle saw him become digital economy minister.

In an interview with Computer Weekly after he quit last year, Bracken said that relying on departments to develop cross-government systems had repeatedly proved a failure.

“We can’t just keep making or buying technology solutions in one department and then just chucking it over the departmental wall and saying, ‘That will work for the rest of government’, because it never does– ever,” he said at the time.

Read more about GDS

“New platforms for all of government have to be designed and architected thoughtfully, and probably not by the same people who are fixated, rightly, on in-year policy delivery and massive change to existing service provision.”

In that interview, Bracken also railed against the negative influence of senior civil servants who wanted to retain control of all IT decision-making in their own departments.

“If it is decided that we should revert back to mandarin-led lands of authority, then that’s [someone else’s] decision,” he said. “I think that would be an incredibly regressive decision, and it would be disappointing.”

According to sources, discussions about the future of GDS are taking place at the moment, with the next steps for the unit likely to be decided in coming days.

In a statement to Computer Weekly, the Cabinet Office said there is no break up of GDS planned, that GDS will continue to look after key projects for the foreseeable future, and said GDS is not being moved out of the Cabinet Office. However, our well-placed sources stand by their comments that such options have been or are being considered.

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