‘Transformation is not something that can just be driven from the centre’ – Q&A with GDS chief Cunnington

As the three-year vision of the Government Transformation Strategy moves into its final 12 months, PublicTechnology asked the GDS leader about ministerial changes, departmental siloes, and what happens after 2020

Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the publication of the Government Transformation Strategy.

The document set forth government’s intention to “use digital to transform the relationship between the citizen and the state”, and outlined a three-year vision for doing so. Across five areas – services, skills and culture, tools and processes, data, and shared components and platforms – the strategy set a number of targets the government hoped to achieve by 2020.

With one year left to run on the strategy’s timeline, PublicTechnology – and our sister title Civil Service World – spoke to a number of expert onlookers to assess progress so far, challenges faced, and where those who are driving the strategy forward – particularly the Government Digital Service – should focus their energies in the next 12 months. Their insights will be published in a major feature running on both titles next week. 

Kevin Cunnington (pictured above), director general of GDS, was among those to offer their thoughts. We asked him about the perception that the civil service is a collection of “warring fiefdoms”, the impact of Brexit on transformation plans, and what happens after 2020.

Here’s what he told us…


PublicTechnology: How would you characterise overall progress towards the targets and goals of the transformation strategy and, with less than one year until 2020, would you say everything is on track?
Kevin Cunnington:
The Government Transformation Strategy, published in 2017, set out how government will use digital to transform the relationship between the citizen and state. Over the last two years, we have made tremendous progress, and I would say we are most certainly on track. There were three components to the strategy. 

First, transforming whole citizen-facing services to improve the experience for everyone. We’ve also saved departments time and money through building well-designed, reusable components, which make it quicker than ever for the entire public sector to build services. The adoption of these components has been staggering. Over 550 services use GOV.UK Notify and, through it, have sent over 250 million notifications. GOV.UK Pay has been adopted by over 60 services with the total value of payments made through platform standing at over £110m. Over three million people have created a GOV.UK Verify account and have performed more than eight million secure transactions with government.

Across the civil service we are delivering at least 86 digital services including a new digital mortgage service. These services will improve the interaction between government and the people we serve. This work will lead to tens of billions of pounds in savings.

The second was full department transformation. To this end, we’ve published the Digital, Data and Technology Competency Framework, which identifies 38 job families and provides details of the skills you need for each role. Most importantly here, we have agreed a common pay approach that will reduce cross department tension and the need for staff to apply for new roles to remain on competitive pay.

The third was internal government transformation, to enable government to collaborate better and deliver digitally enabled change more effectively. Through the GDS Academy, we have trained almost 10,000 people on a range of courses and recently launched the new Emerging Technology Development Programme. 

We retain our position as a world-leading digital government. Since the UN e-Government Survey began in 2010 we have consistently ranked in the top ten. 

And I’ve not even mentioned the GovTech Catalyst, which supports public sector organisations to find innovative solutions to operational service and policy delivery challenges, and our wider innovation work. 

I’m proud of the work we’ve done to deliver against the strategy and I’m aware our work is not yet done, nor will it be done at 2020. The work we are doing provides a foundation for the digital government of the future. Our ambition is to create a truly modern government: one that is able to keep pace with technical change. 

At Sprint last year, it was claimed that up to 400 services were ripe to be transformed as end-to-end services. How far can you get by 2020? And how much progress has been made in terms of getting services and content designed across departmental boundaries?
By 2020, we will have delivered at least 86 digital services including a new digital mortgage service and an online divorce service. These services are designed to improve the interaction between government and the people it serves.

Alongside running the DDaT Profession, GDS also manages cross-government communities made of up of over 3,300 civil servants. These communities include design, user research, and content design professions. This enables the sharing of best practice, collaboration and increases the capability of the community. They are responsible for training 600 people a year in design, user research, content design, and accessibility. 


Skills and culture

How big an impact will the DDaT jobs framework and the progressive pay structures for digital staff have in terms of government’s ability to attract and retain talent?
 It will have a tremendous impact and has been integral to our thinking while we continue to build the Digital, Data and Technology Profession, which now encompasses over 17,000 civil servants all working in this field. The changes we have made are fundamental to solve issues like staff retention and governments ability to attract the right talent. As part of
this we have identified 38 job families which allow the GDS Academy to develop courses to meet specific requirements. But, most importantly, we have agreed a common pay approach that will reduce cross department tension and the need for staff to apply for new roles to remain on competitive pay.

The civil service isn’t a group of warring fiefdoms as is sometimes portrayed

Does a culture of departmental sovereignty and siloes still represent a barrier to transformation?
It’s important that we recognise that departments are responsible and accountable to parliament. But that isn’t preventing transformation. It is fostering a real collaborative spirit as shown recently by DWP and HMCTS working together on the Courts and Tribunal reform.
The civil service isn’t a group of warring fiefdoms as is sometimes portrayed. Everyone in the civil service is trying to do the same thing – make people’s’ lives better. By working together, we all achieve this common purpose.

To what extent can transformation be driven from the centre, and to what extent is the onus on departments themselves to do so? How has GDS approached the need to get departmental buy-in?
Nothing can be achieved in isolation. Transformation is not something that can just be driven from the centre and government departments are ultimately accountable to parliament. Our approach is to foster a collaborative approach to transformation, consider the here and now and also look to the future. 

The centre is crucial in ensuring that there is consistency and value for money in the design process. The Digital Service Standard, the Technology Code of Practice and spend controls have meant that services are built correctly and consistently the first time, avoiding duplication. These standards have widespread adoption across government.

That’s important because, in order to ensure that the centre is effective, departments must be supportive of the established processes. For example, common digital standards have been successful both because of the co-operation of departments and because of the mandate given to GDS. There also needs to be the necessary skills and capability beyond the centre, as well as the need for good, reliable data, which can be shared and reused by departments in order to deliver end-to-end services. 
There is a huge amount of experience and expertise delivering transformation programmes successfully across the Civil Service, but this knowledge often sits in pockets. To combat this, we worked with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority to create the 7 Lenses of Transformation and the Transformation Peer Group. The former helps leaders and delivery teams to understand the essential elements of transformation. The latter provides a space for leaders working on these projects to share what’s going well and gain further help on some of the complex issues they face with their peers.

Is transformation sufficiently understood – and embraced – by policy and delivery professionals?
 There is always more to do, however, significant progress has been made. For example: we provide a range of courses to all public servants, through the GDS Academy. We run courses on, among a host of other things, agile methodology for practitioners and policymakers and sessions on emerging technology and have trained just under 10,000 people in total.
To make sure these courses are available to anyone who needs them we have created additional pop-up academies in Scotland, Birmingham and Wales. 

We also work closely with colleagues in the Major Projects Leadership Academy to make digital a core part of their teaching as well.
Beyond that, we have a range of guidance and standards, things like the Digital Service Standard and the Technology Code of Practice, which helps strike the balance between policy development and delivery.

Tools and processes

Are there any examples (current or planned) of the kind of ‘location-independent tools’ for civil servants envisioned in the strategy?
 Yes, we’ve looked at how we can transform the way civil servants work by supporting departments during the adoption of modern, flexible and secure technology that will increase their efficiency and deliver value for money. As part ofthis we’ve rolled out GovWifi to over 400 locations – now including on boats and in embassies. Most recently, HM Courts and Tribunals Service have rolled it out into courts. Alongside this, we’ve also been looking at how we can enable civil servants to print from different locations.

Delivery of these solutions helped lead to the creation of the first hub of the Government Property Agency Hubs programme in Canary Wharf and will guide the provision of IT in all the future government hubs.

There’s a clear parallel between platforms and data – just as we expect departments to provide access to their data through APIs, we also expect that they will provide access to their platforms.


Components and platforms

A number of departments have extended contracts with big incumbent suppliers while they work on disaggregation. Has disaggregation been harder than expected?
We always expected this to be difficult but there has been considerable progress within departments and agencies. Spend controls has been a vital component and we saved £450m in 2016/17 alone – up from £339m in 15/16. Moving to a new pipeline approach means we are saving money and enabling better and faster delivery.
What next for Government as a Platform? Will GDS develop more tools – and are you open to contributions from others – such as the MoJ form builder tool?
We’re always open to collaboration and have been actively encouraging the 
Ministry of Justice and other departments to create and operate common platforms where there is a need.

There’s a clear parallel between platforms and data here – just as you expect departments to provide access to their data through APIs, we also expect that they will provide access to their platforms.

Has work been at all hampered by external challenges – particularly several ministerial changes, and the impact of EU exit work?
We’ve been lucky in having a range of ministers to help steer our work. Each has bought their own focus and ideas to the table and we are richer for it. Oliver Dowden (pictured below left), minister for Iplementation, has been a champion of our innovation work. His ministerial focus has benefited us greatly. His interest in promoting small and medium-sized enterprises has complemented our work on the Digital Marketplace, which makes it easier for businesses of all sizes to work with government. 

Ensuring that the UK has a smooth and successful exit from the EU is the number-one priority. Having a consistent transformation strategy throughout has ensured that we have approached these challenges without losing sight of this. Indeed, it has meant that, as new services are needed as part of this, they have a real focus on end-to-end design and take on board the lessons we have learned. Having common components available for them to use has also meant they can be built quicker than ever. 

How will government approach transformation post-2020? Will we need another strategy – if so, what should it cover? – or an evolution of the current strategy? Or something else?
It’s too early to say definitively what is next – we still have a year to go with the Government Transformation Strategy and we’re focussed on delivering right until the end. We’ve learned that we need to be flexible for whatever happens next. 
You can see some of this now – the Local Digital Declaration and broadening the organisations we support. The launch of the GovTech Catalyst to help bring innovative solutions into the public sector and work more closely with small innovative companies. The growth of the Digital Marketplace and our recent announcement to take this global. 

 We have a lot of exciting work planned for this year and beyond so keep reading our blog and listening to our podcasts. 

Sam Trendall

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