Interview: Oliver Dowden on Verify, spending controls, and how ‘GDS is moving into new spaces’

Written by Sam Trendall on 13 November 2018 in Features
Features

PublicTechnology talks to the minister for implementation about the challenges and successes of an eventful year for the Government Digital Service, and where the organisation goes from here

Credit: Chris McAndrew/ CC BY SA 3.0

When Oliver Dowden was appointed minister for implementation in January of this year – a brief that contains responsibility for the Government Digital Service – he became the fifth politician in the space of 18 months to hold ministerial oversight of the organisation.

At the midpoint of 2016, Matt Hancock was minister for the Cabinet Office – a role that included GDS as part of its portfolio. He was succeeded by Ben Gummer, who lost his seat in the 2017 general election and was replaced in the Cabinet Office by Damian Green. But, just a few weeks later, it was decided that Green should focus his energies on Brexit-related work, and a new role – minister for government resilience and efficiency – was created. Caroline Nokes, who became the first holder of this post, was the minister responsible for GDS for six months – until a January 2018 reshuffle saw her moved to the immigration brief at the Home Office. Which is where Dowden, the MP for Hertsmere, came in.

Such chopping and changing was in stark contrast to GDS’s formative years – when Francis Maude oversaw the organisation’s creation and early progress during an uninterrupted five-year spell in the Cabinet Office.

It is still important that ministers have an oversight of the spending controls process and continue to seek controls routinely

Dowden’s is another newly established position and, in addition to ministerial leadership of GDS, it covers a wider a wide range of other responsibilities, including the Crown Commercial Service, Government Property Agency, Infrastructure and Projects Authority, civil service HR, and the government’s shared services plan. In the context of the last few years, the 10 months and counting that he has spent in post represent a period of political stability for GDS.

Which is perhaps just as well, as 2018 has been an eventful – and often challenging – year for the digital agency. The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has taken from GDS responsibility for policymaking in the areas of data and digital identities. And, after a difficult history and underwhelming uptake, the GOV.UK Verify identity assurance tool developed by GDS is being handed over to the service's commercial partners, it was recently announced. Suggestions from some onlookers that GDS was in danger of losing its teeth were exacerbated by a revamp of the spending controls that allows for more self-certification from departments.

But, against this backdrop of upheaval and criticism, GDS has continued its work to drive digitisation and has racked up some impressive landmarks – including helping to deliver the government’s first tranche of end-to-end online services. As many as 400 of these services – which take a user’s ultimate goal, such as learning to drive or starting a business, as their design starting point, and bring together information and services from differing agencies to deliver a step-by-step journey to get there – are planned for the coming months.

GDS is also playing a key role in readying government – and the country – for exiting the European Union, and has set up a dedicated Brexit team, led by former chief operating officer Alison Pritchard. The organisation is also developing a Global Digital Marketplace and, early next year, will publish a pan-government Innovation Strategy – the latest in a succession of overarching strategies GDS has developed and rolled out across Whitehall.

At the GovTech Summit that took place at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris this week, PublicTechnology sat down with Dowden (pictured below, centre, at the event) to discuss the journey GDS has been on in 2018 and hear more about the direction in which it will travel over the coming months and years. 
 

PublicTechnology: The role of GDS has changed and developed somewhat over the course of its lifespan. How would you characterise its current role?
Oliver Dowden: As a minister, I have a wide range of responsibilities. But I think that GDS and the wider digital transformation of government is something that really benefits from having a ministerial champion – someone out there making the case. I certainly see it as one of my big challenges as a minister across the brief. In terms of the function of GDS, you are right to say it has evolved. The first thing we did was that we set up GDS in the first place – and you can sometimes forget what a big step that was. I remember from my time in number 10, working with [former Cabinet Office minister] Francis [Maude] and others, the challenges of setting it up. And, necessarily, when we first set it up it required a sort of big heavy push to get it going, and Francis achieved a great deal in terms of setting it up in the first place. And I think over time… clearly the relationship evolves, so I think there has been a move towards a more collaborative approach. Now that GDS… is entrenched in the sense that it is working at scale across government, I think that the approach needs to continue to evolve, and there are a number of things I look for from GDS. First of all is setting standards. Second is helping to understand how technology can be applied effectively – so, for example, this is why we are developing the Innovation Strategy, so people can understand the best way to use emergent technologies. We are also… continuing to have the controls process whereby we ensure that there are consistent standards [applied] across government. But, increasingly, GDS is moving into new spaces. We succeeded in having a common platform in GOV.UK, I think that is something that has been very successful. And we need to look at increasing those commonalities of platforms. I also think GDS will come into its own as we face challenges like Brexit – I saw it with Carillion, where we had a functionality that helps us to achieve those outcomes [needed to meet those challenges].

 
The spending controls were updated recently; are they still a key part of what GDS does, and are they here to stay?
Oh, yeah, definitely. I think that what has evolved with the controls process is just differentiating according to the development of different departments. So, if we have assurance that the controls are being applied well by departments, then we can take a lighter touch with them. I still regularly seek controls, and I certainly use controls to continue to challenge: are we disaggregating contracts to ensure greater opportunities for SMEs? And I ask for advice about how successful contracts are for SMEs. It is still important that ministers have an oversight of the controls process and continue to seek controls routinely because – and this is why Francis set the up in the first place – to actually ensure that, alongside the spending mechanism that we have exercised by the Treasury, we also have a procurement and government delivery strategy applied by the Cabinet Office. So, for me, it remains an important function.
 


Oliver Dowden

  • Appointed minister for implementation in January 2018
  • Elected as MP for Hertsmere in the 2015 general election
  • Has served on two select committees: Petitions; and Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs
  • Received a CBE for public services in 2015
  • Prior to standing as an MP, worked in the Prime Minister’s Office under David Cameron – latterly as deputy chief of staff


How far have got in the disaggregation journey – and does the direction of travel remain the same? 
I think the first challenge is to make sure we don’t re-let contracts with the same people. [We need to be] challenging contract extensions, and making sure we have genuine re-procurement, because we can’t get into any of this if we keep on rolling over contracts, and there is still a challenge to make sure that we don’t continue to [do so]. Then, when we get to the actual procurement process, [we must] make sure it is disaggregated as much as possible. Clearly, there are going to be some circumstances where you’re trying to get the balance between what [benefits] you can get through an oversight of the project as a whole by having a lead contractor, versus the efficiencies and innovations that you get by having smaller chunks that are more accessible – particularly to SMEs – and more accessible to innovation. So, it is not one hard and fast rule, but my predisposition remains to disaggregate if we possibly can, and there would have to be good reasons not to disaggregate.

 

Is Verify a unique case, or might we see other Government as a Platform products or other government digital services welcoming more involvement from the private sector?
I think to a certain extent Verify is unique, as we had always intended to be market-making with this – because we didn’t think there was a market there in the private sector. But we equally have always been clear that, over time, we would transition it to the private sector. So, I see this as a step in the evolution… we [may] see other opportunities where that is possible, and I am open to it. But Verify was a specific case where we were seeking to make the market. If you take something like GOV.UK, what we are seeking to do there is unify standards across government. Or look at Notify [as well] – a lot of these sit more squarely within the public sector. Verify was always intended that it could be used both to access government services, but also you could use the same sort of identity to access services in the private sector, so it lent itself more to going on that path.
 

We don’t want to be in the situation where people have a very different experience consuming in the private sector than they do in the public sector 

What was the prompt for creating the Innovation Strategy – and what do you hope it will deliver?
We are fortunate that we are living in a very exciting time for tech and, if you look at the application of tech in the private sector, we have seen a complete revolution, in terms of your experience as a consumer. Whether that is hotels and Airbnb, shopping and Amazon – the list goes on and on. I think it is important that government is adapting to those technologies, because we don’t want to be in the situation where people have a very different experience consuming in the private sector than they do in the public sector. I think it is important that we have some kind of roadmap for this – I am not doing this because I want to stick my finger in air and say that this is some exciting whizzy technology and we want to use it for the sake of it. It is because we are actually hearing from government departments – they are interested in how we apply AI, how we apply blockchain and all those sorts of things. There is lots of interesting stuff going on. For example, HMRC is very good at using robotics, and increasingly you have seen the use of AI in parts of the NHS. So, how do we understand how those that are doing it well do it, so we can help other parts of the public sector to apply it and benchmark standards both across the public sector, but also relative to the private sector? And then what are the other things that we need to go alongside that? We need to look at things like procurement to ensure that we are capable of procuring innovation effectively. And we do need to look at culture in government, and see whether we have got the right balance between protecting taxpayers’ money, but also encouraging risk and entrepreneurialism. And, of course, it touches on data, which sits with DCMS but it is something I have discussed closely with [minister for digital and the creative industries] Margot James. Because government owns a hell of a lot of data, and it is not always the most accessible. So, looking at how we make our data available. Clearly, the ethics around it relate to DCMS, but the actual ownership relates to government [as a whole].
 

 As departments increasingly have their own digital teams – and, in some cases, are developing their own digital services – will digitisation across government become less centralised?
I think at ministerial level and through the Cabinet Office and through GDS we need to make sure that GDS continues – and ministers continue – to provide vision and drive to the application of tech. But, as departments’ capabilities develop, we need to also help departments along that path of developing capabilities, so whether that is setting standards, whether it’s setting training; GDS needs to be both a challenger and a facilitator – and that is the approach that it has always taken.

 

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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