GDS boss reiterates desire for collaboration with departments

Civil service inertia is the “biggest challenge” facing the Government Digital Service as it presses ahead with plans to improve Whitehall’s digital efforts, according to GDS chief Stephen Foreshew-Cain.

GDS, the nearly 700-strong team at the centre of government which has unified departmental websites under the single GOV.UK platform and attempted to overhaul the way the civil service deals with big IT suppliers, received a £450m boost at last year’s Spending Review.

But the team’s interventionist approach over the past five years has proved controversial with some departmental officials, and Foreshew-Cain – who has led the team as executive director since last year – has repeatedly stressed the need for a more collaborative approach.

Writing on GOV.UK in a bid to explain how GDS would fulfil its mission of overseeing the “digital transformation of government”, Foreshew-Cain defended the first phase of the unit’s work.

“We had to deliver, because decades of inaction and inertia in government had shown that starting with piles of paper and years-long IT contracts doesn’t work. Instead, we had to actually change things, and show how that change could be done well.”

But he stressed: “Our future is not about GDS doing things to departments, but doing things with departments, and helping departments to do things with one another.”

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Foreshew-Cain said the key lessons from the first few years of GDS’s existence included a realisation that “19th century organisational models and 20th century technology were serious constraints to 21st century service demands”.

“Government has been ruled by silos for too long,” he added. “Not just organisational silos, not even just technical ones, but silos of knowledge and experience that make service delivery more difficult than it should be.”

And he said that overcoming a “fear of change” and of “transforming government so that it embraces the change, rather than trying to avoid it” was the “biggest challenge” now facing government – one he vowed GDS would help departments overcome.

“We collaborate because people need reassurance. They need that support. They need to know that someone’s got their back when things go wrong. That’s what we’re here for.”

The GDS executive director said the digital team’s focus would be on three key areas, including providing effective and consistent levels of service across the public sector through agreed standards and assurance; sharing resources through building infrastructure that can be reused by other departments; and improving “people and capability”, a strand he acknowledged had been “too often overlooked”.

“Doing all this work (developing standards, building shared resources) means that civil service must attract, develop and keep people who have the right skills,” he said.

“We need to make it easier to get them in, by simplifying recruitment; and we need to motivate them to stay, by developing more flexible career paths and structures, and building the digital, data and technology profession within the civil service. It will be a valuable and powerful way of sharing skills and knowledge, and of maintaining some degree of institutional memory.”

Foreshew-Cain’s blog came as specialist IT title The Register published details of an internal GDS strategy document, which said detailed “business transformation” plans for how government departments will work to improve their digital capability would not be published until the autumn. 

“More detail about departments’ strategies for business transformation, enabled by digital, technology, data and security are due to be published in September 2016,” the document reportedly states.

That delay, and the reported contents of the plan, attracted some criticism, with one source telling The Register GDS that the latest document appeared to be the third or fourth version of previous plans “without any acknowledgement of why it hasn’t worked before and why this one will work”.

Culture minister Ed Vaizey told MPs last month that the government’s long-awaited new digital strategy was been “drafted and ready to go” but would not be published until after the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

Colin Marrs

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