Why GDS is still losing the ‘parlour game’ of government

Martha Lane Fox and Mike Bracken, two of the key figures in the creation of GDS, believe the organisation remains stymied by major barriers in both the civil service and parliament


“I found phone lines that were still being maintained full-time that were receiving four calls a year.”

This, according to Martha Lane Fox, was among the more eyebrow-raising discoveries of her Directgov 2010 and beyond report into the UK government’s online presence. The report, commissioned by then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude shortly after the coalition government came to power in 2010, was instrumental in informing the creation of the Government Digital Service and its founding aims and principles.

Its core recommendations presage some of the major developments and key themes that have defined the digital government space in the years since then.

Lane-Fox advised that Directgov should be developed into “the government front end for all departments’ transactional online services to citizens and businesses”. She also urged the creation of centralised functions – headed by a “CEO for digital in the Cabinet Office” – with a remit to oversee all online government content and services, and with “the power to direct all government online spending”.

“The data quality is shocking; we have 14 definitions of the word ‘Scottish’ in our systems. The people working on registers are doing God’s own work.”
Former GDS leader Mike Bracken

Little more than a year after the publication of the report, the Government Digital Service was formally unveiled by Maude. 

In addition to assuming responsibility for the creation of GOV.UK – a single, united home for all government’s online services and content – GDS was also given power of spending approval for costly IT or digital projects.

In truth, GDS perhaps never quite had the “teeth” that Lane Fox made clear in her report she believed it needed. She recommended an organisation that could impose the mandatory adoption of common standards and cross-department services, as well as ensuring that all departments developed APIs and share them with shared parties. The 2010 report also called for a GDSesque unit to be given “absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels, commissioning all government online information from other departments”.

Almost eight years on from the publication report, Lane Fox and Mike Bracken – who was GDS’s first leader, and headed the organisation from 2011 to 2015 – took part in an event hosted by the Institute for Government last week, titled: Has the Government Digital Service Been successful?

Lane Fox says that, whatever differences there are between the organisation her report imagined and the reality of GDS over the past eight years, “it would be very hard to downplay how significant” some of its achievements have been.

“But is it enough? Of course not – we have to keep the pace up,” she adds. 

The biggest potential brake on the speed of progress is a lack of awareness and action on the part of politicians, Lane Fox says. She picks out Matt Hancock – who, since her remarks were made, has been moved away from the digital sphere and into a post as health secretary – as a lone voice of support in the current administration.

“The thing that make me nervous is that, as far as I can see, we have a total lack of deep digital ambition in this country,” she says. “There is an absence of really deep thinking about how we are going to transform ourselves for the benefit of all of us. That is extremely alarming. I cannot overstate how important [that transformation] is to our survival.”

Lane Fox adds: “The absence of deep political thinking about how we are going to transform the UK is profoundly disturbing.”

Bracken points to a different obstacle: the machinery of the civil service, and a desire on the part of departments to maintain control – particularly the bigger ones, who regard themselves as “self-contained entities” he says. 

This, he adds, has stymied the uptake of GDS’s Government as a Platform (GaaP) tools – such as Pay, Notify, and Verify.

“Pay and Notify are two very good examples of… [why] the whole model of common platforms is highly appropriate for government,” he adds.  “But government departments are a billion years old. And they fundamentally believe… that the platform model will take away their power.”

Until “the operational model of Whitehall” changes, attempts to implement digital-based reforms of government will ultimately founder, the former GDS chief says. The driving force behind that change is likely to come from politicians, rather than civil servants, Bracken believes.

“GaaP, or anything that will reform Whitehall, requires political will,” he says. “That reform of the operational structure is not coming from anyone over 40, or anyone at SCS (senior civil service) level 2 or above, who is invested in that system.”

Playing the game
Bracken recognises that the way in which government departments are ordered and structured may have been based on what were “very good reasons” once upon a time. 

“It now just looks like a parlour game,” he says. “It is a model that puts sovereignty ahead of service delivery and users.”

“The absence of deep political thinking about how we are going to transform the UK is profoundly disturbing”
Martha Lane Fox

In November 2015, many onlookers were shocked when GDS received a massive funding boost from the Spending Review led by then chancellor George Osborne. But, during his time at the helm, Bracken remembers receiving visits from somewhat sniffy representatives of the Treasury who would ask GDS: “what are you for?”

Prompting him to think: “Well, we have just saved £4bn – perhaps that should have been your job.”

In the last year Bracken was in charge of GDS, the organisation also took on responsibility for government data. He says that the inherent challenges of getting to grips with that data provided “a microcosm” of the wider challenge the organisation faces.

The data quality is shocking; we have 14 definitions of the word ‘Scottish’ in our systems,” he adds. “The people working on registers are doing God’s own work. Sorting out those canonical registers of data is the single most important reform [taking place].”

Such reforms are, Lane Fox (pictured left) says, urgent and necessary. As pressure on public services grows in the months and years ahead, she believes that digital provides “the only answer to allow government to deliver the things people deserve in their lives”.

Lane Fox adds: “The modern vision of society is not going to be provided at scale unless we use technology.”

Sam Trendall

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