Government Digital Service director Stephen Foreshew-Cain signals gentler approach

The Government Digital Service (GDS) must not be used as a “forcing function” when it deals with Whitehall departments and should instead seek a more collaborative approach, the head of the digital team has said.

GDS was set up in the last parliament as part of a central government drive to improve the online services offered by the state, sharpen Whitehall’s buying of IT, and better equip civil servants with digital skills.

However, its approach sometimes met resistance from departmental officials, with the National Audit Office spending watchdog recently highlighting how a clash of culture at the Rural Payments Agency had led to serious problems with the digital overhaul of one of its key services.

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Speaking to the Financial Times, Stephen Foreshew-Cain — who took over as GDS executive director following the departure last year of the team’s founder, Mike Bracken — said digital projects still required a “necessary friction”.

But he added: “There are two approaches. You can take a very consultative approach that says ‘we’re going to work until everybody understands this and comes to a consensus’ or [you can] use GDS as a forcing function.

“Round one, if you will, the first engagement, was about ‘we’re going to do some of this stuff to you, to help you change… I think we continued to do the ‘to departments’ [approach] for perhaps a little longer than we could or should have.”

Foreshew-Cain’s comments come after a series of speakers at GDS’s annual conference — Sprint 16 — stressed the need for GDS to support departments and ensure standards were commonly agreed.

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock told the conference: “The role of the centre and of GDS in particular is to support and challenge — yes, through the spending controls that we have… 

“But we want to move towards having high standards that are agreed together, so that the process is less about the centre telling people what to do, and more about having a high, agreed set of standards that everybody lives up to. 

“And then [GDS can play] the job of thought leaders, making sure that we’re constantly pushing, challenging, asking what we can do next.”

Colin Marrs

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