GDS chief: We’re trying to shake our ‘arrogant’ image

The Government Digital Service is learning to be more empathetic and humble, according to its chief operating officer Alex Holmes.

Alex Holmes says GDS is changing – Photo credit: Alex Holmes, Twitter

Speaking to PublicTechnology after a recent event on inclusivity in technology professions during London Tech Week, Holmes acknowledges past frictions between GDS and the rest of the civil service, but says that the Cabinet Office-based digital transformation service is now “moving back the dial”.

“We have to remember that no one is setting out to do a bad job,” he says. “If you have an organisation [like GDS] in the centre, that isn’t at the frontline, it’s too easy to say ‘You should do it like this’. We need to empathise more.”

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GDS was formed in 2011 and ruffled some feathers with departments that didn’t appreciate all of its interventions. Today, however, Holmes stresses that the organisation is “trying to move away from the arrogance” it had in its early years.

He says that it has taken on board feedback about the way it interacts with other departments. “When we are concerned about a service, we have learnt to have a much better discussion about how that could be improved. I would like to think departments are finding that more helpful.”

But this doesn’t mean it will stop putting pressure on when needed, he adds. “Part of our role is to keep pushing departments to collaborate because they’re incentivised not to do that.”

Emphasising his organisation’s collaborative approach, Holmes says that GDS has plenty to learn from local government, too.

“We recognise that a lot of local authorities are small and it’s hard for them to have dedicated capability,” he says. “We can learn from them, because there are also small organisations in central government and it’s [about] asking how we do that.”

Culture shift

At the same time, GDS is moving away from being solely a delivery organisation, with the service looking at helping central government embrace digital and technological functions more broadly.

Most people in the civil service are aware of the GDS way of working, but Holmes – who has been in the civil service for about a decade – says that there has been a noticeable shift in culture across Whitehall during that time.

“There are pockets of people, most of whom aren’t actually digital, but who feel that as civil servants they’re getting a voice and being empowered,” he says. “You’ve got Jeremy Heywood retweeting personal blogs about leadership in the civil service…that’s a very internet era thing to be doing.”

But despite Holmes’ assertions that there has been a shift in attitudes towards digital, awareness remains low, with one recent survey showing that almost three-quarters of civil servants hadn’t heard of or don’t understand the concept of Government as a Platform.

“We haven’t done a good enough job explaining in it,” Holmes admits. “Even in our own organisation, there’s a programme called Government as a Platform, which is about building common components and platforms, but there’s also a broader concept, which is to make it easy for departments to build common services.”

He hopes the confusion can be addressed when the government’s long-awaited digital strategy is out. Holmes – who was speaking to PublicTechnology before the EU referendum result, which could delay the strategy further – says that GDS wants it to be published “soon”.

Once that is out in the open, he says, GDS will publish its own business plan. “We want to make sure it fits with the strategy and adjust it accordingly. What I can say, though, is things haven’t stopped while we wait for it.”

Holmes says that all of the GDS team’s comments in recent months mirror what the organisation’s strategy will say, although he won’t be drawn on the details or timeline.

However, he says that the next six months will see more of the Government as a Platform platforms “being made properly live” and more work on registers used by the Common Technology Service.

“This might not be important as a user of public services, but it’s massively important as a civil servant, as a taxpayer,” he says, “because I think that’s where we’ll save tonnes of money.”

Civil servants as users

The idea of working to improve government’s digital services with civil servants – not just the public – in mind is also prompting GDS to adapt how it does its user research.

Holmes points out that, for many services, the users are the people in departments, not citizens, and they are the ones that need to be surveyed.

He adds that GDS also plans to do more user research on HR and finance policies, which he says surprises other chief operating officers. “I say we have user research, and develop ideas that we get rid of quickly if they don’t work, as we would with services,” Holmes says. “They haven’t been exposed to that, or been shown the methodology to apply that.”

But it’s also a work in progress, with Holmes saying that the hit rate of good ideas isn’t as high as he’d like.

Meanwhile, Holmes says, the organisation is continuing to grow, and working on developing a more diverse workforce. But 75% of GDS’s 600 staff are civil servants, bound by Cabinet Office pay caps. How does that affect the digital service’s ability to attract and retain talent?

“We know we can’t pay the most,” he says, “but we tap into what’s great about the civil service: we have a really strong sense of mission – helping departments transform their services.”


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