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The Government Digital Service (GDS) is “becoming sidelined” and its government-as-a-platform (GaaP) programme is “dead”, according to former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who set up GDS in 2011.
Maude said the civil service has an “innovation-hostile culture” and a “bias to inertia”, during a speech at Speaker’s House in Westminster on 12 September about the future of the civil service.
He called for a greater role for “strong functional leadership” for cross-Whitehall functions, such as IT and digital, pointing to the costs savings delivered under his tenure as proof such an approach works.
“Every department claims that what it does is completely unique and distinctive – and, of course, much is genuinely unique. But most of their requirements for property, IT and digital, procurement, HR [human resources], finance and project management are common to the whole of government,” said Maude.
“Even when they are not, you still need one place where there’s a critical mass of technical expertise. Between 2010 and 2015, we led from the Cabinet Office an efficiency and reform programme that saved the taxpayer £19bn in 2014-15.”
Maude said attempts to build new central functions to coordinate across departments – such as GDS – were thwarted by “mandarins” and “heavily resisted by the HM Treasury”.
“For much of the mandarinate this was an assault on their autonomy and empires, and what we know about empires is that they fight back – and boy, are they fighting back,” he said.
“The mantra tends to be: ‘We definitely want to continue with the reforms. But they’re now embedded in the departments, and it’s definitely now safe to relax the central controls.’ When you hear those words, you know that what they really mean is that the reforms are embedded six feet under, and that the departments are cheerfully going back to their old ways.
“So GDS, which became a model for other governments to follow – including in the US and Australia – is becoming sidelined and underpowered. The powerful and revolutionary idea of ‘government as a platform’ is dead.”
GDS introduced a series of spending controls for digital projects under Maude, which the former minister has credited with saving billions of pounds. Those controls are being relaxed, with authority now returning to departments – much as Maude described in his speech.
He also cited the Major Projects Authority – set up to give central oversight of large government programmes, including IT – as another example of the benefits of taking control of common functions away from departments.
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“The wrong thing was every part of government marking its own homework on the management of major projects, so that they were all said to be doing splendidly despite two-thirds running well over budget and timetable. Establishing the Major Projects Authority to provide consistent oversight, assurance and support nearly halved the failure rate,” he said.
Last year, Computer Weekly reported that senior civil servants wanted to break up GDS and return most of its responsibility for digital strategy to departments. GDS supporters have highlighted the relaxation of spend controls as a further diminishing of its central remit.
When the GaaP programme was first established, GDS identified at least 24 common digital services that could be developed as part of the plan. So far, just five of those are underway – Gov.uk Verify, for identity assurance; Pay for online payments; Notify for electronic notifications; platform as a service (PaaS); and establishing standard registers of data – and the roll-out to departments has been slow.
A further programme under GaaP – common technology services, to introduce better IT for civil servants – has effectively been mothballed.
Cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, Jeremy Heywood, described Maude’s comments as a “wholly inaccurate portrayal”.
“Since he left the Cabinet Office in 2015, the civil service reform programme that he helped to create has been implemented with vigour, sharply improving our commercial, financial and digital capacity,” said Heywood. Maude was Cabinet Office minister from 2010 to 2015.
When GDS’s first director, Mike Bracken, quit in 2015, he cited a push to “revert back to mandarin-led lands of authority” over digital policy as a major factor in his decision to leave. Bracken was appointed by Maude and often highlighted the valuable role the minister played in giving political authority to support GDS.