GDS shake-up is a victory for senior officials at the expense of citizens

Former senior civil servant Andrew Greenway says that big leadership changes in government digital are likely to be seen as a triumph only by those who believe that a government organised along Victorian lines is still fit for fixing today’s problems.

On Monday the Government Digital Service (GDS) lost its second leader in less than a year. Stephen Foreshew-Cain, in post for less than nine months, has been replaced by Kevin Cunnington, the director general responsible for Transformation in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Kevin has been a prominent advocate for the digital agenda in government over the last few years. He has banged the drum for more collaborative working across Whitehall. His ability to do the job is not in question. The question is: given the praise given to Stephen after his early departure, why was this move made now?

In the last few weeks, the Home Office has lost its chief digital officer and director of transformation. HMRC confirmed yesterday that their own chief digital and technology officer, Mark Dearnley, will also go in September. Kevin’s role, as DG for Transformation in DWP, is not being replaced. 

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The internet has changed what’s possible in public services. It is mostly agreed that this opportunity can only be taken if the shape and culture of government organisations reflects this new reality. The latest GDS episode feels like a victory for those who believe a government organised along Victorian lines is still fit for fixing today’s problems.

It also points to two connected trends. One is the weakening role played by the centre in departments’ business. The other is Whitehall’s leaders opportunistically easing reform of their world on to the back burner.

What’s playing out in the shadows of this strange summer is a timeless Whitehall battle. On one side those who seek to direct from the centre, on the other, big departments who prefer to be left to their own devices. It’s a battle that goes back 150 years. The centre is not holding firm.

History suggests that centralisation is cyclical, so resetting a new-look Cabinet Office with a looser grip might be seen as part of the bureaucracy’s natural rhythm. However, that’s only reasonable if the reformers have completed their job of putting departments on the path to improvement. Whitehall’s watchers have not observed this happening consistently on digital.

That the defenestration of GDS has accelerated under the reign of John Manzoni is perplexing. The civil service’s chief executive is there to drive big institutional priorities past departments’ protests. Digital is one of these priorities. Yet GDS’ influence on departments has degraded since the CEO’s appointment in October 2014.

Manzoni came in to manage relations between the centre and the departments from a position of strength. From the outside, it now looks like he is being toyed with by the civil service’s most experienced turf warriors in HMRC and DWP. Permanent secretaries are reclaiming lost territory. Pushing institutional reform via a set of published departmental plans doesn’t feel like the response of a strong CEO. Especially if those plans are derided by the normally sober Institute for Government as “waffle” and a “laundry list of nice-to-haves”.

In fairness to John, this illustrates his limited licence to act. The person calling the shots is the cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood; ultimately, this is on his watch. 

The other intriguing footnote to this drama is the politics, with a capital P. The rise of GDS and the digital agenda is closely associated with Conservative grandee Lord Maude. Yet the loudest protests at yesterday’s GDS machinations came from Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader. Digitally transforming public services is not party political turf. It should be among the quietest areas of a minsterial brief; technocratic, complex, a bit dull. Why all the noise? 

It‘s easy to dismiss this as silly season office politics. But it matters. For all GDS’ faults — and there are plenty — it has been responsible for bringing a new generation of bright, committed people into central government. It made a career in public service relevant to people who grew up with the internet. Many of these people will not stay, because there are few other places for them to go in government. They’ll be fine — there is no shortage of companies desperate to hire their talents. But Whitehall will suffer as a consequence. So will everyone reliant on public services delivered by a second-class bureaucracy.

GDS’ philosophy was to put public needs before the bureaucratic machine’s own needs. This made it unpopular with some civil servants. It provoked the ire of people at the very top, often those who spoke behind closed doors with the deepest contempt for the people they served. Yet when GDS stuck to that philosophy, it worked, and well enough for the idea to be copied.

When it comes to services, it seems some of our most senior public servants would still rather listen to each other, rather than the public. They are missing the opportunity to deliver a simpler, fairer state, more likely to meet outcomes ministers want. Which seems careless. At best.


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