Comedians code – GDS head’s best gags from Sprint 19

Written by Jim Dunton on 26 September 2019 in Features

Director general Alison Pritchard showed off her sideline as a comedy writer and performer at annual digital government shindig

Credit: GDS/CC BY 2.0

Running a huge government operation is not challenging enough for some people. And to prove the point, interim Government Digital Service head Alison Pritchard combines her role as one of the nation’s most influential civil servants with a “hobby” of comedy writing and performance.

For some, that might mean open-mic nights or scribbling scripts that no-one will ever see. Pritchard, however, has written and produced the award-winning Damn The Torpedoes! radio sketch show and worked with some of the industry’s biggest names – Lewis MacLeod, for one. She is also the brains behind the Live from Kirrin Island podcast.

Pritchard got chance to mix her day job with her sideline at last week’s Sprint 19 conference, all from the stage of the South Bank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. Here’s our pick of her best off-message gags. 


On the transient nature of being: “So a bit about me, Alison Pritchard. I’m GDS’s director general. You all know it’s an interim appointment. But then again, so is life. That’s how I like to think of it.”

On Sprint 19’s woman-rich speaker list: “I need to offer an apology that we haven’t been able to get a gender balance in the speakers today. You’ll know that it’s quite tricky sometimes to find men with the right experience and skills and the confidence to come up and take the stage on big occasions like this.”

On Oliver Dowden and John Manzoni's role as Sprint 19 keynote speakers: “I’m going to begin by giving these underrepresented voices a platform to be heard.”

On the interface of artistic temperaments and devolution at the South Bank: “It has all kicked off behind the scenes already with the use of dressing rooms. With no sense of irony, we’ve given the Scottish Government the ‘lead soloist’ dressing room. Whether that’s a prelude to IndyRef2 I don’t know. We’ll try and put that right.”

On the way key decisions are made: “The executive team at GDS had several meetings, wrote some papers, went out to consultation and concluded that the hashtag today should be '#Sprint19'. We think it’s quite clever. You can see what we’ve done there.”

On plans for a new perm-sec level government chief digital information officer (GCDIO) role to oversee GDS: “The GCDIO, that’s a bit of a mouthful isn’t it? We’ve shortened it to the ‘Big G’ which tends to incorporate the sense of scale and seniority of this particular post.”

On political boss Oliver Dowden: “It’s a great, great honour to welcome the minister who puts the ‘drive’ into the hard drive; the ‘mega’ into megabyte; and the ‘art’ into artificial intelligence … it’s the paymaster general, minister for the Cabinet Office and a great force for progress on this agenda.”

On the Citymapper app cited by Dowden as model for government to learn from: “I think it’s a fantastic app… it helps you work out which trains are cancelled. Always useful. It is, I guess, information.”

On her line manager: “We’re now about to hear from a man so eloquent he makes John Bercow sound like he’s speaking without his teeth in… this is our senior official of 1,000 parliamentary inquiries, some of it not GDS’ fault… I’d like to introduce to the stage the permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office, the chief executive of the entire civil service – which is a lot of Christmas cards to write... Mr John Manzoni.” 

On the key work of the Sprint 19 events team: “A serious big thanks to all the volunteers who’ve done so much to make this happen… the work behind the scenes is enormous. They are truly, truly stellar… by which I mean they’re full of Stella: They’ve been drinking all day.”

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