Fears Government Digital Service being “dismembered” as it prepares to lose data policy to DCMS

Warning of “Whitehall asset-stripping” as policy-focused DCMS looks set to gain chunk of GDS remit

Culture secretary Matt Hancock heads the department that is reportedly gaining control of data policy for government. Credit: PA

The Government Digital Service will hand over control of data policy and governance to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport later this year, it has been reported – sparking fears that the central Cabinet Office team is having its wings significantly clipped.

GDS was set up by the coalition government to take a lead on digital policy right across government, imposing central spend controls on tech projects and introducing tough new standards for government websites and digital services.

But its future has been the subject of repeated speculation in recent years, with frequent leadership changes and ministerial churn in the Cabinet Office raising questions over whether departmental priorities were reasserting themselves and undermining the centralising vision of GDS.

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Citing multiple sources, the website Diginomica has now reported that GDS is set to lose responsibility for data policy and governance from April 1, with the remit given to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). DCMS, which last year added the word ‘Digital’ to its title, is led by former Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock, who briefly held responsibility for GDS as Cabinet Office minister from 2015 to 2016.

In a statement, the Cabinet Office neither confirmed nor denied the report, saying only: “The Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have been looking at how to bring together and further strengthen their work on the use and management of data across government. An announcement will follow in due course.”

DCMS already has responsibility for data protection policy across the wider economy, but GDS leads cross-government efforts to ensure that departments themselves use and manage data properly, including by setting up authoritative canonical registers to avoid needless duplication across departments.

Responding to the latest report in a piece for PublicTechnology’s sister publication Civil Service World, former senior Cabinet Office digital staffer Andrew Greenway expressed fear that handing responsibility for data over “to a small, policy-led department like DCMS” appeared part of the “dismembering” of GDS.

“Replacing a weakened centre with diffuse departmental effort is a mistake, because it strips a critical function out of government,” he said. 

“The point of GDS was to have a single team that could act as the voice of users for government as a whole. To do that well, it needed a mandate covering data as well as design, operations and technology. It also had to have a clear mission. 

“Increasingly, it has neither of these. The departmental shape of government gives no incentive for any non-central department to step in. It is a great shame that the two most well-placed advocates for an effective centre — the Treasury and [cabinet secretary] Sir Jeremy Heywood — have proved unable or unwilling to stop the rot.”

Greenway accused ministers of “rearranging the deckchairs” in government digital, and said senior officials focused on “Whitehall asset-stripping” now appeared keen to carve up the service.

“The talent that remains is a valuable prize. GDS’ policy reach and brand is attractive to empire builders too. There are several Whitehall islands who could make credible arguments for snatching away parts of the territory.”

Greenway’s views on the future of GDS chime with those expressed by Martha Lane-Fox – the tech entrepreneur whose 2011 report for government was instrumental in the setting up of GDS – in a speech last year.

“Departmental silos are creeping back, replicating cost and inefficiency and, most importantly, letting down citizens,” she said.

“GDS is celebrated and copied around the world. Last year we were ranked top for digital government by the UN. How ironic if we fail to recognise and nurture this great asset.”


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