GDS needs to focus on digital transformation – not unproven technologies

The Institute for Government’s Emily Andrews says that the Government Digital Service needs to help public bodies swim before they can hunt.

The debate over the role of the Government Digital Service rumbles on. Earlier this week on CSWJoshua Chambers suggested it should take the role of a “Government Technology Service”, continuing to disrupt and innovate.  

But digital transformation is mostly not about technology. It’s about government departments fundamentally changing the way they operate.

The Institute for Government’s own research into digital in government suggests that GDS has an important role to play in helping departments do this work. GDS won a £450m vote of confidence from the Treasury in the Spending Review, after an uncertain summer in which most of its top team departed. 

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Since then, work has clearly been taking place: new cross-government services for payment and notification have been announced, and the data team has begun the immense task of setting up single ‘registers’ of government data.  

But the absence of a new ‘Government Digital Strategy’, setting out exactly how all this will fit together, has left room for continued speculation about what GDS should actually do.

Chambers makes a provocative call for the GDS to reinvent itself as a techno-shark: “moving past digital” and continuing to shock government with innovations such as “robotics, sensors, 3D printing, financial technology and artificial intelligence”.  

Sharks are “not collaborators, they are powerful predators”, he noted. But in this parliament, the GDS leadership has been eager to be helpful, rather than threatening. 

Chief executive Stephen Foreshew-Cain tells departmental leaders “we’ve got your back”. In this iteration, GDS is not a shark, but more like the pilot fish which swims alongside it cleaning its teeth.  

In digital, “the strategy is delivery”. And delivery in government happens in departments and their agencies. The centre can only add value by supporting this work. Bringing innovative, new technologies and ways of working into government – as GDS did in the last parliament – is just one way to do this.

Departments now have to deliver on the promise of the change catalysed by GDS. Expectations are high. Cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood has heralded digital transformation as the means to make “the big savings that are needed without damaging public services”.  

To make this a reality, departments don’t need 3D printing:  they need to know how to shape their organisations to make the most of digital technologies and methods.  

Making digital work in government will mostly involve things that have nothing to do with technology. Government leaders need to create governance structures that support iterative development. They need to make sure policy and digital are joined up, so that digital teams are more than just suppliers who are brought into the process at the end.  And they need to make the civil service attractive to highly specialised and skilled workers.

A cross-departmental approach to these issues makes sense.  A central unit can support departments by helping to develop and deploy key capabilities, checking and assuring progress and standards, and identifying opportunities for efficiency savings. They can act as a broker for cross-governmental collaboration, and a hub of expertise for departmental leaders who want to know “how do you make this work in practice?”

GDS has played all of these roles over the last five years, and will need to continue if it is going to help unprotected departments save £20bn by 2020.

Different departments are at different levels of digital maturity, and GDS’ role will be different in each case.  Big, transactional departments like HMRC need support in developing the capability they need to implement their ambitious plans. DfE and Defra need support in making the most of their data.  There are common elements but each department needs to own its transformation. 

Some departments might still need sharks, but the places where the biggest gains are to be made need pilot fish. The insurgency of the Mike Bracken era was crucial in getting some seriously counter-cultural practices into Whitehall. But GDS cannot leave this work half-finished – continually introducing departments to the new and exciting, without helping them to make sure those changes are properly embedded, and actually work.

GDS’ leadership seems to understand this. But we will have to wait for the strategy to get a real sense of how they intend to do it.

Emily Andrews is a researcher for the Institute for Government think tank

Colin Marrs

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