GDS is being 'slowly dismantled', says outgoing BEIS digital recruiter

Written by Matt Foster and Rebecca Hill on 11 November 2016 in News

Central government's digital agenda is being undermined by a lack of effective leadership and poor skills training for civil servants, according to the departing head of digital recruitment at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has said.

Ann Kempster said that the Government Digtial Service was in danger of being dismantled - Photo credit: Flickr, William Warby, CC BY 2.0

In a parting shot to government, she laid bare her feelings about the attitude of senior civil service leaders towards digital and the Government Digital Service, which was set up during the last parliament in a bid to radically improve the government's handling of IT contracts, boost the digital skills of civil servants and overhaul the user experience for the state's online services.

Writing on her personal blog on the day she left government - having spent more than a decade of working in digital roles in across Whitehall - former BEIS civil servant Ann Kempster said that she had found herself "not caring anymore", after what she described as a "period of retrenchment" for digital in central government.

"I’m seeing the slow dismantling of GDS and all it’s strived to change," Kempster wrote. 

"I’m seeing a lack of appetite in departments for real, meaningful transformation. I’m seeing a lack of effective leadership right from the very top of the civil service."

Her criticisms will come as a blow to GDS, which is trying to strike a positive note within government after a summer of upheaval that began with the surprise departure of former boss Stephen Foreshew-Cain and was followed by a series of high-profile departures from the team.

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New leader Kevin Cunnington has repeatedly tried to allay such fears, saying that GDS is here to stay, and has recently announced the appointment of two new recuits to replace the lost talent.

However, Kempster, who oversaw the implementation of GDS's Digital Marketplace – which allows public sector organisations to source staff and technology for digital projects – has said that GDS' efforts to change the way Whitehall thinks about digital risk being undone.

"I thought that we’d won the fight between the old and the new after the creation of GDS," she wrote. "For a while we did. But then the civil service did what the civil service does and closed ranks."

The former BEIS official said Whitehall had been struck by an "unprecedented period of paralysis" over the past 18 months, saying "there is a lack of vision, lack of ambition and lack of any sort of a plan anywhere. There is a lack of interest".

Kempster claimed that Whitehall continued to be "ruled by a cadre of senior civil servants and politicians who don’t understand technology", accusing top officials of being "more concerned with building empires than delivering good services to the people of the United Kingdom".

"Many civil servants lack even basic skills," she added.

"Things as fundamental as knowing how to type – let alone the more advanced things they need to know to work in the 21st century. This makes them resentful of 'digital' and resistant to the change that it means."

Cunnington, who came to GDS from the Department for Work and Pensions, has detailed plans to create an official profession for digital, data and technology staff, and the DWP's digital academy is to be expanded nationally to boost training for civil servants.

However, Cunnington has also hinted that the spend controls that allow GDS to approve or reject departments' digital projects or contracts over a certain value – introduced by the then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude in 2010 to cut down on excessive spending on IT – are in line for a rethink.

Cunnington told a press briefing that the £100,000 limit set for digital projects is now "just too low for most of the digital projects that government wants to carry out".

In her parting blog, Kempster said she believed there was still no "widespread plan to upskill" civil servants and ready them for the digital era, as she hit out at the pay, reward and performance management systems used by the organisation.

"Creative thinking, innovation and new ways of doing things are not recognised or rewarded," she said.

"And while the civil service is in this period of retrenchment I can’t do any more of the exhausting fights to gain even an inch of ground."

:And because of this, I find myself not caring anymore. I find it hard to motivate myself to turn up and do anything in this climate of disruption and uncertainty. I find myself angry more than I’m not."

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Dan (not verified)

Submitted on 14 November, 2016 - 22:23
Dismantle it. Good idea, very poorly implemented. It's not that the Civil Service closed ranks, it's more that GDS failed to demonstrate any real ability to do transformational government. Tarting up (or down) a simple website is not going to cut it these days. It doesn't matter how many agile developers you have. If GDS wants to be more effective it needs to hire exceptional Procurement talent (something Marzoni will get behind) and exceptional Transformational people (decent Enterprise Architects, Strategists and Business Change people) to drive initiatives internally. The UX and development skills can be procured outside from small to medium subject matter experts as required.

Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted on 15 November, 2016 - 17:42
Please. I've worked with those kind of job titles as a peer and they are, to a man, clueless when it comes to digital. That's because the level of seniority and the immaturity of web technologies means they earned their stripes on non-web business systems, and the architecture and best practises of traditional IT are polar opposites to web (eg stateful/stateless, long release cycles w manual tests/continuous and automated, BDUF/just in time). TOGAF, for example, has no place whatsoever in digital services. I'm afraid these people are the problem not the solution.

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