Martha Lane Fox: GDS viewed with suspicion by civil servants

The Government Digital Service was initially seen as a “counter-cultural” force by civil servants who feared it might undermine their jobs, according to Baroness Martha Lane-Fox, the tech entrepreneur who was instrumental in setting it up.

GDS was launched in 2011 in a bid to improve the government’s online services and help departments strike better deals with big IT suppliers.

It was modelled on a report by co-founder Baroness Lane-Fox, who called for a new team at the centre of government with “absolute control” of the user experience across all the government’s online output, led by a chief with “the power to direct all government online spending”.

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GDS received the strong political backing of then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who last year said GDS’s work meant government IT had gone from “from being a byword for failure to a shining example of public sector innovation and reform”.

Speaking to PublicTechnology’s political sister magazine The House – Baroness Lane Fox said she had been “extremely lucky to coincide” with Maude because he had given “massive air cover for this kind of change” and stopped her plans being “spat out of the system”.

She said: “It’s tough to get stuff done, because this is slightly counter-cultural in the civil service. Not because people don’t think of it as important, but quite often people probably felt like it was their jobs directly being affected.”

GDS’s current chief Stephen Foreshew-Cain has repeatedly emphasised the need for a more collaborative relationship between departments and the centre of government since taking up post.

The team last year got a £450m boost from the Treasury, and has since focused on building common platforms that can be used by all departments, overhauling Whitehall’s approach to data, and improving the day-to-day IT systems used by officials themselves.

Baroness Lane-Fox said GDS had been right to “go fast” in its early years in order to show departments “what’s possible”, and acknowledged that the future of government digital would require “a much more deep, cultural change”, including by building civil service digital and tech skills.

“I think inevitably there will be an ebb and flow of pace, and I still really respect the team for getting on with it and coming up with things like their digital leaders’ network – big programmes to help bring departments along with them,” she says.

But Baroness Lane-Fox also warned against slipping back into a fragmented approach to improving government digital services.

“The scary thing or the shame would be – mainly for us as citizens – if suddenly government digital became slightly balkanised again, and all of a sudden one big department was building something over here and another one over there, because then you’re never going to get the real benefits of what shared technology enables,” she told The House.

“It’s not about rigorous tight control, it’s about just making sure you’re not replicating services.”

Speaking at a tech industry conference last week, Foreshew-Cain said GDS was currently working on plans to allow digital, data and technology officials to break free of the civil service’s traditional grade structure, in a bid to help make a career in Whitehall more attractive to experts from outside.

Baroness Lane-Fox’s full interview with The House magazine will be published next week.

Colin Marrs

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