Experts brand talk of GDS’s demise ‘premature’

Commentators have said that the tech community should expect to see a refocusing of the Government Digital Service under its new chief Kevin Cunnington and a recasting of its relationship with other departments, but no weakening of its role.

Kevin Cunnington’s surprise appointment has prompted widespread speculation about GDS’ future – Photo credit: Cabinet Office

The unexpected departure of GDS cheif Stephen Foreshew-Cain just three weeks ago sparked claims of a “Whitehall coup” over the central digital body’s remit

This was followed by last week’s news that Janet Hughes, programme director of the GDS’s flagship Verify identity-assurance scheme, would also be standing down. The news prompted more concern about the future of the service, despite the GDS’ new director Kevin Cunnington using his first blogpost in the role to attempt allay such fears.

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However, Institute for Government programme director Daniel Thornton, who closely monitors the government’s digital operations, said Cunnington – who was previously director general for business transformation at the Department for Work and Pensions – should be taken at his word.

Thornton pointed to the £450m funding settlement awarded to GDS in last year’s spending review, which will see it through the course of the current parliament, as well as to the glowing endorsement civil service chief executive John Manzoni gave to Cunnington on his appointment, as evidence of this.

But he said it would be wrong to expect “more of the same” from GDS under its new chief, and predicted a greater role in business transformation work for government departments, in addition to continuing work to make the government’s online presence more user-friendly.

“Kevin moving to the GDS is fine and a good thing,” he said. “We [at the IfG] feel very aligned with where he’s at.

“Recently there’s been a lot of talk of government departments ‘gutting’ the GDS, which is rather wide of the mark, I think. Instead, what we’re seeing is more of a continuing evolution of GDS.”

Kable chief analyst Jessica Figueras, agreed with this sentiment. She acknowledged that the loss of the well-respected figures of Foreshew-Cain and Hughes was a “blow” to GDS, but added: “I don’t believe these changes in themselves signal a downgrading of GDS‘ role.

“It’s more a long-overdue recasting of its relationships with the major departments.”

Discussing Cunnington’s next steps at GDSThornton said he expected the new leader to look to build on his DWP successes at the service.

“Where Kevin has more experience is in how to transform services end-to-end and deal with legacy services,” he said. “He has perspective on the role of digital, and on digital as a driver of transformation, not just changing websites.”

Thornton said he believed Foreshew-Cain had been “already starting” to take the GDS in the direction he predicted Cunnington would. 

‘Verify troubled by unrealistic expectations’

A rumour that HMRC has been working on its own customer-identification package rather than looking to use GDS’s Verify formed one strand of speculation that central-versus-departmental tensions were threatening the GDS’s future.

Thornton said that while it was preferable for government departments to use standardised products to suit their needs, HMRC would have a sound basis for prioritising a solution that worked in its best interests.

“If we look at what the strategic things are that the government needs to get right, then verifying people’s identity is clearly one of them,” he said.

“If HMRC wants to reduce fraud, it’s not about better service for customers, it’s about better service for the taxpayer – the nation as a taxpayer, rather than individuals. Added to which, HMRC needs something that will work with businesses as well as individuals.”

Meanwhile, Figueras said that it “should not come as any surprise” if HMRC was considering other options, because the original parameters for Verify was for it “to provide low to medium security ID assurance for citizens, and this hasn’t changed”.

She added that the main problem faced by Verify had been the “wildly unrealistic expectations for roll-out” that were set initially, which meant that “slow and patchy delivery has been seen as a sign of failure” for the system.

“The fact is that Verify is an incredibly ambitious programme and the fundamental concepts behind it were untested. There are lots of moving parts, and multiple relationships between different parts of government and the private sector,” Figueras said.

“Janet Hughes correctly identified that making it work was about business transformation and culture change, not technology. The new Verify team will need staying power and political guile if they are to deliver on its long-term potential.”

In his first – and so-far only – blog entry in his new post, Cunnington said he intended to spend his first few weeks getting to know his team and their ideas, thoughts, and concerns before reporting back with his next online update. 

Jim Dunton

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