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Will Whitehall power struggle cripple Government Digital Service?

After losing its second leader in less than a year, does the Government Digital Service stand any chance of a successful future?

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When Computer Weekly broke the story that Kevin Cunnington of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was taking over as the new head of the Government Digital Service (GDS), many were surprised. Others have been expecting an uprising. 

The official line from the Cabinet Office is that the move will strengthen GDS. However, as previously reported, sources suggest that several senior civil servants – including civil service boss John Manzoni – wants to diminish the power of GDS and return the delivery of digital to departments.

As Manzoni once put it: “The good stuff happens when you put great people out in the departments. It doesn’t happen when you put great people in the centre.” This, though, is the complete opposite of what GDS aims to do, which is to create a series of platforms centrally that can be used and modified to suit any government department.

An age-old battle

It’s by no means a new power struggle. Last year, the then GDS leader Mike Bracken, who was key in setting up the organisation, resigned – at least partly because of the never-ending battle with civil servants. Bracken’s departure was followed by a series of other senior GDS figures leaving, leading to a flurry of questions around the future of digital government.

When Stephen Foreshew-Cain came on board as the new GDS chief, the questions slowly died down. While GDS has been criticised for its delayed strategy, and is by no means perfect, Foreshew-Cain proved a confident, well-respected leader. In fact, the UK govermnent has recently come out on top in the UN's annual e-government survey, showing that great improvements have been made. 

“Defenestration of GDS has accelerated under the reign of John Manzoni”
Andrew Greenaway, consultant

Announcing his own departure after just under nine months in the post, Foreshew-Cain said he was confident of “leaving a strong team of capable leaders in GDS to see the job through”, and felt “honoured” to have been part of the team.

However, one government source said that Foreshew-Cain had been “stabbed in the back”, and that his departure was unexpected. His sudden exit also brings into question the future of several other senior GDS figures.

Former GDS team member Andrew Greenway said in a blog post that the “defenestration of GDS has accelerated under the reign of John Manzoni”.

‘In the shadows’

He continued: “What’s playing out in the shadows of this strange summer is a timeless Whitehall battle. On one side, those who seek to direct from the centre; on the other, big departments who prefer to be left to their own devices. It’s a battle that goes back 150 years. The centre is not holding.

“That’s OK if everyone is on the path towards improvement. Whitehall’s watchers are not saying this.”

Manzoni isn’t known for a belief in centralised IT and will no doubt continue to regard departments as best placed to be in charge. So what does this mean for the future of GDS? In an email sent to staff by Cunnington, seen by Computer Weekly, the new GDS head said that “this change is not the signal of an organisation under threat”.

He also promised to “listen” to GDS staff “before I form a plan over the next few weeks”. However, a “plan” is already in place – namely, the GDS strategy, which, although it has yet to be published in the public domain, is very much in existence.

Control back to departments

In the past year, GDS has made serious strides in becoming more inclusive. One of Foreshew-Cain’s mantras during his short time as GDS boss has been to “help departments help themselves”, making sure they have the right tools and skills in place to do so. However, not all departments have been on board with this.

As Computer Weekly previously reported, sources suggest that bringing in Cunnington is a compromise to ease tension between certain departments and GDS.

Part of this tension stems from the exclusion of DWP and HM Revenue and Customs from GDS’s business plan last year – both departments want to take charge of some of the big GDS projects. HMRC is rumoured to want control of the government identity assurance platform Verify – a system that sources suggest the department has no confidence in. 

A GDS without the support of two of the largest government departments could be almost impossible. But equally impossible is a future of returning to large outsourcing deals, wasting millions of taxpayer money.

Read more about GDS

TechUK’s director of public sector Naureen Khan, said that it’s now “more important than ever for government to invest in the transformation of our public services”.

She added: “The most urgent priority is for government to set out how it plans to deliver on its digital government ambition through articulating its overarching strategy for delivering the ‘smarter state’, and the role of the tech industry to help deliver its vision.”

Unstable leadership

Foreshew-Cain’s departure and Cunnington’s appointment are not the only reshuffles in digital government. HMRC’s Mark Dearnley announced earlier this week that he is leaving his role as CDO for the department and returning to the private sector. With no immediate replacement in place, the department’s Aspire exit could prove difficult. 

As parliament’s public accounts committee has pointed out time and time again, continuity in leadership is key to any successful IT project.

“As we have seen from elsewhere in government, one of the main factors that determines the success of complex programmes such as this is the quality and stability of their leadership,” the committee said in its latest report.

Several large government IT programmes have been plagued by a rapid change in senior leadership, leading to programmes going over budget, stagnating and not delivering.

With two GDS leaders biting the dust in the space of a year, there is a danger this could be true for what GDS is trying to achieve too.

While there are currently no concrete plans to split up GDS, and the Cabinet Office remains firm that GDS will continue to look after key projects, its future is far from secure.

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