‘GDS’s future mission needs clarifying’

A House of Commons inquiry into the work of GDS to data and the state of digital government has begun publishing its findings. PublicTechnology looks at what a range of experts have had to say

For those of us who, in our younger years, often had to explain ourselves in the wake of an underwhelming school report or parents evening, the word ‘disruptive’ will likely have few positive connotations.

But, in its younger years, the Government Digital Service and those who supported its work revelled in the adjective. ‘Disruption’ was the organisation’s raison d’être. If you weren’t disrupting something – you weren’t doing it right.

The effects of this rabble-rousing were quick, intense, and long-lasting. There is no disputing the transformative impact GDS has had on government, and the services it provides to citizens. 

But, as acceptance and adoption of GDS’s methods and products has grown, its ability to disrupt has necessarily declined – as has its need to do so. 

In the last year or two, many onlookers have begun to speculate about the role of GDS: what it has become, and what it ought to become in the future. Such speculation has intensified in the light of developments such as the migration of responsibility for data policymaking from GDS to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the relaxation of spend controls.

This debate, which has typically occurred in conversations at industry events and through online exchanges of views, is now being transported into parliament; the Commons Science and Technology Committee announced in July that it was launching an inquiry into digital government.

The investigations of MPs will take in the work of GDS and its achievements so far, how it should operate in the future, and what government needs to do to ensure it takes advantage of new technologies.

The committee has now published its first set of evidence submissions, taking in contributions from government, industry, and individuals.

Here’s what some of the key players had to say:

Cabinet Office
As one might expect, the home of GDS uses its lengthy submission to talk up the organisation’s achievements and claims that, in the last six years, “substantial progress has been made in making government more digital”.

It says: “Departments have built their digital professionalism and capability, with over 10,000 civil servants now having been trained by the GDS Academy; new standards have made services across government consistent, accessible and intuitive; and departments have delivered exemplar digital services to make essential transactions with citizens easier and more efficient.”

After running through a range of accomplishments – beginning with the launch of GOV.UK in 2012 and taking in a claimed £1bn in savings enabled by spending controls – the Cabinet Office does acknowledge that there are more big challenges ahead. In the coming years, GDS’s focus will increasingly expand to local government, it seems.

“Many public services remain offline, including many within the local government domain,” it says. “To help address this, central and local government organisations have recently launched the Local Digital Declaration, a set of principles and commitments by which central and local government will work together to share tools and best practice in order to help get more public services online. Helping local government solve problems will further be assisted by the 2019 Innovation Strategy and programmes like the GovTech Catalyst, that invite public-sector organisations to submit challenges they think might be solved by the innovative use of emerging technologies.”

Local Government Association
For its part, the industry body for local authorities says that its members want to work more closely with GDS and others in Whitehall.

“Councils want to work more collaboratively with all government departments that are digitising services which are delivered in part by local government,” it says. 

To help make life easier for councils, digital leaders at government departments first need to ensure they are collaborating effectively with each other, according to the LGA.

“Government departments are typically focused on specific services, such as taxation, welfare, or health. Their IT systems are therefore designed to support these specific approaches. Councils are place-based, and have to join up a range of services,” it says. 

“This involves interacting with different IT systems linked to different government departments, which can become complex and time-consuming. To improve councils’ ability to interact with these platforms, Whitehall should work harder to co-design digital services from the start of their development and also keep abreast of changing technologies.”

Another submission from an industry body touches on two questions concerning GDS that have, in recent years, been posed with increasing frequency and concern by digital government watchers.

In essence: has it lost its edge? And where does it go from here?

The submission from techUK, which represents 950 companies across the UK technology industry, says: “There have been many tangible successes as a result of the leadership role of GDS including GOV.UK and engendering a culture change across government to ‘do things differently’. Much of this change was due to the disruptive approach GDS adopted to deliver transformation across government – an approach that had a number of clear success. However, as stated by the 2017 National Audit Office report on Digital Transformation in Government: ‘Government Digital Service’s early impact across government shows that there is a key role for it in promoting new approaches and developing expertise, but GDS has found it difficult to redefine its role as it has grown.’ 

“The views from tech suppliers to the public sector is in line with the NAO view – the current and future mission of GDS needs clarifying to the tech industry.”

The ex-GDSer
David Durant, who now works for the Greater London Authority, previously spent six years working for GDS as a business analyst. He praises his former employer for a wide array of “impressive achievements”, including the launch of GOV.UK, the creation of spend controls, the development of Government as a Platform tools, and the assistance provided to departments in driving digial transformation.

Durant also provides a number of recommendations to ensure that GDS can continue its good work – the first of which is to reinstate the former cross-government roles of chief technology officer and chief technical architect, and create a new role as chief digital officer. These positions – which would reside within the Cabinet Office, but outside GDS – would join the currently-vacant post of chief data officer to form a leadership quartet to drive digital government forward, Durant says.

“Each of these roles should be top ranked civil servants, the equivalent of a permanent secretary,” he adds.

The former GDS man also stresses the importance of the spend controls, which he says are “by far the most important lever of government GDS has”.

“Closer cooperative work with other government organisations is excellent but must not lead to any level of digital spend control being devolved away from GDS,” he adds. “It would take very little time for things to revert to a procurement-based model based on the previous cartel of system integrators.”

University of Bradford
The submission provided by researchers from the University of Bradford is perhaps the most scathing assessment of GDS provided to the committee thus far. 

The argument put forward by Bradford academics – who built on research conducted by Brunel University – was that the work of GDS has and its backers has focused too squarely on simply transforming front-end transactions, with no meaningful tie-in with wider policy reform.

“Progress with government digital services has been going round in circles for 20 years,” the submission says. “The initiatives by the Cabinet Office in 2011 that led to the creation of GDS were almost all flawed in logic or common sense, and failed to learn from previous experience. The practical effect was that steps taken between roughly 2000 and 2003 were repeated, with worse results due to some of the new edicts. GDS was thus set up to fail. Only when there is political acceptance that the agenda set for GDS in and around 2011 was wrong in almost every aspect, can digital government become a meaningful and productive endeavour.

It adds: “Research and practice in digital government has been applying language and models taken from commerce with no adaptation to the governmental context. In most governmental, commercial or academic material, including those underpinning the 2011 ‘digital by default’ mantra, there is no reference to what governments and public bodies actually do and how they do it.”

Click here to read all the submissions in full and keep track of all developments in the inquiry.

Sam Trendall

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