Interview: GDS head Alison Pritchard on ministerial change, the spending review and the benefits of comedy

The Government Digital Service was created to be a radical agent of reform. Director general Alison Pritchard tells PublicTechnology that, while it now prefers to work more collaboratively, it still has the stomach for a scrap.

All photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

“Revolution, not evolution.”

This is the three-word banner under which the Government Digital Service was founded. 

Written in October 2010, it was the headline of a report from Martha Lane Fox who, in her then-role as the UK’s digital champion, had been asked by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude to undertake a comprehensive review of the Directgov website and the civil service operation that supported it. She called for the site to be made the de facto “front end for all departments’ online services”, as well as urging the creation of a new “central team in Cabinet Office [with] absolute control… across all digital channels”.

The impact of Lane Fox’s words was swift and far-reaching. By the end of the following year, Maude declared GDS “open for business”. Six weeks after he did so, UK citizens got their first glimpse of a new cross-government website, as GOV.UK went into its public beta phase.

The revolution was now reality.

But achieving such radical change is rarely bloodless. And GDS, in its early years, seemed happy to square up to the Whitehall departments that represented the status quo. Armed with the ability to enforce standards and spending controls, it had the arsenal to match its attitude. As a result, some ministries were left a little bruised by what the digital agency’s current head Alison Pritchard describes as “a bit of the old GDS elbow”.

Almost a decade on, GDS and its approach have matured – as have the tech capabilities of individual departments, many of which now have large in-house digital teams of their own.

“When we get ministers here, they all say the same thing: ‘Help us to help you’. I think GDS could be better at utilising ministerial relationships to best effect – for both the organisation and the ministers.”

Pritchard tells PublicTechnology her organisation now needs to operate across “a spectrum: from critical friend, through to enforcer”.

The latter may be less frequently required than it once was. But asked which of the two she sees as being the primary role, Pritchard says GDS still needs to keep its elbow in good working order – particularly as it begins to oversee a new wave of government-wide transformation.

“I think there’s scope for us to start moving back on that journey to being that bit more of the enforcer,” she says. “GDS has focused on the ‘digital’ part of the Digital, Data and Technology function, and we originated by being quite a strong enforcer on digital standards and assurance. Over time, we’ve operated [in more] of an influencing mode, and moved our enforcement operation into a collaborative pipeline approach, so that we can work with departments earlier on in their process and fix things as we progress. And that’s great. But I’m also up for us pushing the boundaries and being that much firmer with departments’ plans, and ensuring that we maintain the teeth that we need to be effective. Other functions do it, and I think being able to operate as both enforcer and supporter is not beyond our means.”

In the coming years, the second “D” of DDaT will become a bigger area of focus for GDS. The agency will, Pritchard says, be called upon to assess – and approve – departmental plans for the use of data and the infrastructure that supports this work.

“We’re going to need to be able to sign off on data architecture for various major programmes and ensure that [our work on] the approaches people are taking on data goes beyond merely guidance, and more into recognising standards that will allow us to be interoperable, build for the future, and make sure that operating models are being sufficiently disrupted,” she says.

She adds that, unlike in GDS’s early days, the organisation is now working in an environment where digital is commonplace and its importance widely appreciated.

“Colleagues are talking to us at a much earlier stage – because there is now an understanding that digital delivery and digital transformation isn’t merely the front end or the back end of services; it really is part and parcel of how you plan your user journey, and is the means of delivering services that are fit for purpose.”

Reaching the mainland
In her own journey to GDS, where she has served as interim director general since August, Pritchard has often taken the route less travelled.

This is evidenced by her literal journey to GDS’s east London office each morning – a commute which starts with her skippering a boat to transport her from the small island in the Thames on which she lives. 

The lack of a bridge to connect the island to “the mainland, as we like to call it” may add a few minutes to residents’ travelling time. But it has provided Pritchard, who began her career as a computer programmer at the Ministry of Defence, with a chance to practise her coding skills.

“Being on an island, the level of the river and the flow of the river is important. I’ve got a big dashboard at home that I programmed with Environment Agency and Met Office data to help me decide what time I leave the house – or if I should flee the house, if the river level is riding rapidly! – and I’ve connected it up with my Google Home.”

Pritchard’s civil service career began in 1987 and has taken her to the Treasury, the Home Office, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It has also seen her spend five years in Saudi Arabia working on a defence programme. In 2005, she led an independent government review into the taxpayer-funded air travel of the Royal Family and government ministers. Alongside the day job, Pritchard has enjoyed success as a comedy writer and producer – something she describes as “a hobby that got out of control”.

Her comedy writing – including for Damn The Torpedoes!, a military-themed sketch show for British Forces Radio – remains an important source of relaxation and “distraction”, and has also provided a few transferable skills, she says.

“I found it really powerful for communicating,” she says. “Comedy is a really structured product, and you have to think very carefully about how you get from A to B. You think about everyone as an audience and how you get your message across to them. I’ve used it as a way of developing my skills in communication – both written and oral – to be able to know when you’ve made your point, and then: get out! With ministers, for instance, I’m not doing a comedy routine, but what I’m doing is taking people through a journey and, by the end of it, they should feel that they’ve had the punch line to a particular subject matter.”

PublicTechnology wonders whose egos are more difficult to manage: comedians or government ministers?

“You’ll get me into trouble!” she warns, before acknowledging the showbusiness imperative for writers and producers to “get the most out of the talent” is not dissimilar to the way in which the civil service supports the ministers it serves. Pritchard says she would like GDS to improve the extent to which it encourages ministers to reflect that support back.

“When we get ministers here, they all say the same thing: ‘Help us to help you’. I think GDS could be better at utilising ministerial relationships to best effect – for both the organisation and the ministers.”

Since arriving at GDS – initially as chief operating officer, then as head of its Brexit work – the director general has, at least, had ample experience of being introduced to politicians.

About two weeks before our conversation, Lord Theodore Agnew became the fifth person to hold ministerial responsibility for GDS since Pritchard joined from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in August 2017. He follows Caroline Nokes, Oliver Dowden, Simon Hart and, latterly, Jeremy Quin.

Pritchard says, with a smile, that she is “looking forward to a long and deep relationship” with the new minister, who is operating in a joint role, split between the Cabinet Office and the Treasury.

“I have already had several meetings with Lord Agnew, even in the short time he has been looking after the organisation,” she adds.

The new minister is part of an administration that has, via the prime minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings, loudly called for the machinery of government to be reformed, and remodelled around the increased use of data science. 

Government’s DDaT profession is made up of about 15,000 people, fewer than 5% of whom are data specialists, according to Pritchard.

“I expect that number to significantly rise over the next few years as we focus on building data science capability,” she says.

Data science, and its exponents across government, have now arrived at “a moment in time when a lot of things have come together”.

“Clearly, we have an administration that’s very focused on making progress on data usage”, she says. “All the ingredients are also there: the things we’ve been doing around setting our frameworks, structures, and capability-building is all in place and is happening. 

“We now need to capitalise and exploit the data that we have within government.”

While the data may be there, a government-wide figurehead is not – despite plans to recruit a chief data officer being announced in the Government Transformation Strategy back in February 2017. The ongoing failure to do so is frequently picked out as a notable shortcoming of the strategy’s rollout.

Pritchard insists that, when it finally takes place, the appointment will be “a major enabler”.

“Structures like the Spending Reviews don’t help us because they still have a very bilateral-based approach. But we are seeing progress in the way that Treasury colleagues are thinking about how we manage budgeting and funding, and we are talking about ranges of cost nowadays, rather than absolutes. That’s quite important in supporting agile approaches.”

“To some extent, the timing of the chief data officer is important, because we want to bring someone in when we’ve got the groundwork for them to make great progress,” she says. “I think it’s essential to have a chief data officer working horizontally across government, which we clearly haven’t had before, and I anticipate progress during 2020.”

Another major cross-government position that should be filled in the coming months is the newly created role of government chief digital and information officer. The postholder of the permanent secretary-level position will serve as the head of the DDaT profession across the civil service, and will hold direct accountability for the 850 staff who now work for GDS.

The GCDIO – known to Pritchard, for the time being at least, as “the big G” or “the G dog” – will enjoy the backing of GDS’s leader. “I’m anticipating that they will need a top team to support them,” Pritchard says. “I haven’t hidden the fact that I am interim director general – but I’d be very happy to continue, and support a GCDIO.”

She adds: “I think the difference of bringing in someone at permanent secretary-level will be their ability to set and engage digital strategies across government, operating at a different level than we’ve been able to do as GDS – where we’ve been seen almost like a peer to other bits of government. You would anticipate a government CDIO to be able to operate a strategic level and align the different approaches that major departments are undertaking. We’re talking about very large departments with very big roles – including MoD, DWP, HMRC – the GCDIO has got to be able to bring alignment to a very complex, but very powerful, set of deliverables.”

A lasting legacy
For all the recent progress in modernising public services, there are still significant parts of government running on comparatively ancient technology. Last year, the Department for Work and Pensions’ chief digital and information officer Simon McKinnon revealed that “the state pension is run through a 30-year old system”.

His comments were made during an evidence session for a Science and Technology Committee inquiry into digital government. After the inquiry concluded, the government accepted MPs’ recommendation that GDS should be tasked with a comprehensive audit of all so-called legacy technology systems still in use across departments. 

GDS’s definition of legacy technology encompasses any hardware, software or business process that meets one or more of the following criteria: is considered an end-of-life product; is no longer supported by the supplier; is impossible to update; is “above the acceptable risk threshold”; and is no longer cost-effective.

The agency completed the audit and is now working with the Treasury to get departments to use the upcoming Spending Review to tackle this “technical debt”.

“We now have, collectively, a much better handle on the scale of the problem,” Pritchard says. “We want to shape the collective narrative that allows us to make sure that we’re making one singular argument with Treasury colleagues around the need for addressing legacy.” 

This is another area where the GDS boss cites the need for her organisation to have the necessary “teeth” to drive widespread change.

“Departments will have some very difficult decisions to take. But what we can’t afford is for legacy to not be addressed,” she says. “We will have a role in working with departments and Treasury colleagues to ensure that Spending Review bids reflect that. Another point worth making is that, as you’re introducing new policy areas and new operational change, you need to make sure you’re putting enough money aside for the technical elements of it – something which is quite often overlooked.”

To help ensure programmes do not add to government’s technical debt, spending controls are likely to be updated with new provisions targeted at legacy systems.

Precise details are to be confirmed, but Pritchard says she “wants to be able to test whether the plans for a particular programme are sufficiently addressing any related dependencies on legacy debt”.

GDS would also like a more formalised role in ensuring the most effective use across departments of its flagship “Government as a Platform” suite of products. This includes common, reusable tools such as the Notify messaging platform, and the Pay service for processing payments.

Pritchard says: “If we are to find that, if a department did X, it would meet their need, but if it does Y it may meet both their need and others’ needs. we need to be able to [say]: ‘actually, we’d like you to do Y, because there’s a broader set of benefits to government – and, there may be a cost associated, so we need to find a way to make it worthwhile you doing Y; but we’re not prepared to sign off on you just doing X, even if it’s right for you’.”

All the while, GDS wants to keep on developing existing platforms and adding capabilities, while seeking out and promoting others’ innovations.

“We would like to focus on the further development of the next iterative and innovative forms; many of these services have great potential for machine learning and artificial intelligence to be embedded in the way that they function,” Pritchard says. “I’m also absolutely all for developing and utilising what others have done; I think we have a convening role, where we can catalogue what other departments are doing in the common component space. Defra, for example, have done quite a lot of work around the common processes that they use for registration and licensing, and I’d like to see us more uniformly shape those benefits [across government] – and I think the GCDIO will bring some weight to bear in being able to make that happen.”

Siloes and sovereignty
The common perception has always been that GDS requires a significant amount of heft to cause even a small shift in the sovereign will of a Whitehall department. Advocates of change – including some of Pritchard’s predecessors in the GDS hotseat – have often cited the very structure of the civil service as the biggest barrier to its reform.

Pritchard tells PublicTechnology it would be “foolish to pretend” it is an obstacle that no longer exists.

“If we look at structures like the Spending Reviews themselves, they don’t help us because they still have a very bilateral-based approach,” she adds. “But we are seeing progress in the way that Treasury colleagues are thinking about how we manage budgeting and funding, and we are talking about ranges of cost nowadays, rather than absolutes. That’s quite important in supporting agile approaches. 

“We’re also finding that there’s an awful lot more collaborative, cross-cutting work than we’ve ever done in the past. The virtue of the digital function being 15,000-strong across all main departments [is that it] sets up the opportunity for more horizontal thinking. And I think we’ll expect to see more of the Spending Review outcomes focused on horizontal goals.”

The imperative to meet a challenge as complex as delivering the UK’s exit from the European Union has not only been a prompt for such collaboration, but has “been a phenomenal accelerator for the digital function”, Pritchard says.

“It was our moment to mature,” she continues. “In terms of all the things [government] was focused and concentrating on, actually our digital preparedness was extremely good. It was also a moment of demonstrating how we were working across those boundaries, both with skill sets and moving particular skills around. So many of the different needs were interoperable and we saw that imperative play out in making sure that departments were taking decisions that reflected other people’s dependencies.”

She adds: “We had policymakers from departments coming into this building, with their shirt and tie done up. But the moment they got into the room where we were working on this collaboratively, they would get into a different mindset around how we do digital thinking and deliver services from a user perspective. And they might take their tie off and relax a bit.”

Now that does sound like a revolution.


Sam Trendall

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