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Rarely, if ever, has the decision by one Cabinet Office Civil Servant to leave Whitehall resulted in the spilling of so much ink, both virtual and physical. Twitter was ablaze and the IT trade press full of speculation. The last few weeks have seen an out-pouring of claim and counter-claim as to the reasons for Mike Bracken’s move to the Co-op as Chief Digital Officer after five years of leading the Government Digital Service (GDS).
So, with Mike and a number of his senior team leaving, and with the GDS COO, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, stepping up to lead the organisation, what is likely to happen to GDS and the Government’s Digital by Default agenda during and post the current Spending Review? To my mind, and despite all the media speculation, the prospects for both are good. GDS has been publicly praised by Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock MP and by the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Haywood. In addition, Mike Bracken’s own blog has emphasised John Manzoni’s support for Government as a Platform (GaaP). These statements of political and the most senior Civil Service support are essential to the future success of GDS, the Digital agenda and its most ambitious manifestation – Government as a Platform (GaaP): an approach to service delivery that will help enable the Prime Minister’s long held vision of a “post-bureaucratic” State.
But before looking to the future, it is important to remember what has been achieved since the creation of GDS. In short, GDS has changed the debate in terms of how Government thinks about buying, building and deploying technology and related services in support of modern public service delivery. Without GDS’ G-Cloud, the Government would not be able to encourage more SMEs to bid successfully for Government work. Without GDS work on GOV.UK and Verify, the Government could not point to early successes on the road to GaaP; and without the 25 Exemplar projects, the Government would not have learnt the language of Agile development with the User need as its guiding principle. More than 2 million people have registered to vote using a new digital service, and new claims for State Pension, Career’s Allowance and Jobseeker’s Allowance are now all available online. Data published in July 2015 showed 86.1% of new Jobseeker’s Allowance claims were made online, compared to just 9.5% in September 2010.
Given these strong foundations the future for GDS and the Government’s Digital by Default agenda is bright. The reason for this, in the immortal words of the Labour’s last Treasury Secretary, is that there is still “no money”. The current Spending Review, complimented by the Government’s Single Departmental Plans, and highlighted by John Manzoni in a recent blog, is challenging unprotected Departments to find between 25% and 40% cost savings. This will force them to think very carefully about their strategic and operational objectives, and to identify ways of delivering their transactional services in a significantly more shared and corporate manner. Where back-office shared services have led, so citizen facing transactional services will follow. GDS should continue to be the driving force behind this transformation in service delivery over this Parliament, but to do this successfully GDS needs to evolve.
So how should GDS evolve? Focusing on few strategic areas will continue to be the key for success. Recent blog posts from GDS on the new Common Technology Services (CTS) organisation and on early discovery activity of a specific Government as a Platform (GaaP) project suggest that two of these areas will be CTS and GaaP. To this I would add a third, Data, both in terms of Management Information and the Government’s Open Data and Big Data agendas. Taken together these three pillars of an evolved GDS should position it to help Departments and Agencies respond positively to – what the Chancellor’s own briefing on the Comprehensive Spending Review describes as – the “cross-cutting issues such as greater use of big data and digital technologies that will drive the next stage of efficiency and reform across government.”
With such an evolved focus, will GDS need to be a bigger central function than it is today to succeed? For me the answer is no. In fact, I would argue GDS should have a smaller head-count post the Spending Review than it has today. My reasoning is that as GDS has helped establish more and more digital capability within Departments, less of the actual digital delivery needs to be done by a central function. Increasingly , digital capability within Departments led by some pioneering GDS staff including David Dilley, now at Ministry of Justice, Emma Stace, now at Business, Innovation & Skills, and Richard Sergeant, now at the Home Office, will be the places where digital delivery happens. The role for an evolved GDS should be to provide the strategy, standards, processes and key subject matter experts to assist Departments in delivering their parts of the common technology, platform and data strategy that will have emerged from the Comprehensive Spending Review and the Single Departmental Plans by the time of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement in November. Such an evolved organisational design for GDS would see it as a relatively small and wise central team working, in the words of Claire Arnold of Maxxim Consulting, in “active partnership” with Departments. It would still retain its culture of driving disruptive change in the way the Government procures and uses technology: a critical role as a large number of Departmental legacy IT contracts would come up for re-competition during the course of this Parliament.
In conclusion, GDS can continue to be the driving force behind the creation of the Prime Minister’s vision of a post-bureaucratic State. Its future is bright if it focuses on a few key themes such as Central Technology Services, Government as a Platform, the Open and Big Data agendas, and, if it evolves, its role to predominately direct digital delivery across Whitehall, rather than doing the delivery from the centre. In the word of GDS’ founder, “onwards.”
Matthew Trimming is Founder of M.E.T.A a market entry and business development consultancy