Some ideas to get GDS back on track – disruption is needed

SUMMARY:

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is flailing. It needs a wake-up call. Here are some of my ideas to get its reputation back on track.

Kevin Cunnington
Kevin Cunnington, Director General, GDS

The Government Digital Service (GDS) has changed Whitehall for the better. Not everyone agrees with that, but in my view, public sector technology procurement and service design are in a significantly better place than they were six or seven years ago.

User need is now a common discussion in government, agile delivery is no longer considered ‘risky’, and new procurement tools, such as the G-Cloud and the Digital Marketplace, have created more competition and innovation amongst the supplier base.

That being said, I think it’s important to acknowledge that GDS has been flailing in recent years. Once a powerhouse at the centre of government, and internationally applauded, it is now being perceived as a lame duck that no-one quite knows what to do with. There are a number of reasons for this, some of which include ineffectual leadership, political wrangling and a lack of ambition.

Some would argue that GDS has become too similar to the service integrators that it used to bemoan in the early days – too big, unwieldy, bureaucratic and a barrier to the problems it is trying to solve.

The result? We reported last week how DCMS is making a play to pick off bits of GDS that it believes could help it build a new empire in the future. I don’t believe this is beneficial in the long-term. I would argue that DCMS’ ambitions are being driven by selfish motivations, rather than for the strategic benefit of public service delivery.

That being said – disruption is needed. GDS needs a kick up the arse and it needs to reinvent itself before it’s too late. History tells us that organisations can rise again if they are bold enough to solve problems that others hadn’t even considered. If GDS doesn’t do this, it’s not hard to imagine how things could stagnate and Britain could go from being a world-leader in digital government, to a laggard.

I’ve been mulling over what could be done to rectify this situation. This is by no means a comprehensive list and I am opening myself up to criticism, given that I am simply a Whitehall observer, and not a doer in government. That being said, I think there are plenty of good people in GDS and government that would like to see change happen before it’s too late and hopefully this list will be a catalyst for a broader discussion.

Equally, these ideas should be dynamic – any thoughts, inputs, or criticisms, do feel free to get in touch and I can update them going forward.

New leadership

GDS’ early days were a success in huge part because of bold leadership. It had political clout and its senior team were willing to take chances and had the savviness to drive change and deliver. However, this has changed in recent years. We’ve seen a string of new Ministers being brought in, none of which have been given the time to settle, or seem to understand the significance of their post. In addition to this, GDS’ current director general, Kevin Cunnington, appears to be completely ineffectual. I’ve met Cunnington, he’s a very nice man, but he doesn’t seem to be interested in delivery at all. In his entire time in post, I can’t think of anything bold or interesting that he’s delivered. I don’t stand alone in that view.

New leadership needs to be brought in. Leadership that understands the problems, what needs to be done and is willing to go out across Whitehall and into the public to talk openly about the challenges and possible solutions. That doesn’t mean a combative boss is required – but one that gets it and is willing to shake things up. In addition to this, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor need to put GDS at the front and centre of service delivery. They need to talk about it publicly and need to push it as a body that can help and drive change.

Disruption needs to come from the top. In Whitehall, a grassroots can work, but it’s that much harder without the top-level support.

A measurable strategy, with bold ideas

It’s been over a year since the Transformation Strategy was produced by the Cabinet Office and GDS. It was an ‘okay’ document, with some nice ideas, but hardly anything bold in it. It said everything that we expected it to say. In fact, I could probably have guessed what most of it would include before it was published. The problem with it was that it didn’t include any ambitious targets or plans that were measurable.

GDS needs to be held to account and part of the problem is that by not including any measurable targets, or ambitions, it is able to plod along, claiming that it is ‘doing’ things. Yet, how do we know? How does this force change?

Government-as-a-Platform appears to be falling apart. Parts of it are being picked off by DCMS and other parts are not proving to be as successful as once was hoped. Is this still a strategy? If it is, what are the ins and outs of that strategy? Moving beyond GaaP, what bold ideas does GDS have? We haven’t heard anything in a very long time.

GDS needs to identify a number of problems that need solving across Whitehall. Those don’t have to be specific to any department – even better would be problems that need solving across the whole of government. And it needs to work with departments to create a strategy that’s public and measurable, in order to be held to account.

Be open

In the old days, GDS was very open about communicating its successes and problem areas. There was an open dialogue about what it was doing and as an organisation it was the most transparent of any body I’ve worked with in Whitehall. That has changed. The walls have gone up and in my recent experience, it has taken 48 hours to get a simple clarification from the Cabinet Office (which didn’t even answer the question I put forward).

If GDS wants to be taken seriously, it needs to be seen as an open and collaborative organisation. Not just with the media and the public, but with other departments. Communicating ideas, having discussions and debates, will keep it relevant. GDS used to hold annual events for the Civil Service, where people were invited to come and hear what had been happening in recent months, departments were welcome to talk, the senior team was available to speak to. When was the last of these events? I can’t even remember…

A walled garden does not make you more interesting or reputable – it makes it look like you’ve got something to hide.

At the centre but loosely coupled

One of the arguments made against GDS in recent years is that it became too combative at the centre. An US vs. Them environment was created between GDS and other departments, making effective change difficult. A bit too much stick and not enough carrot.

I think GDS staying at the centre – within the Cabinet Office, where it has some authority over other departments – is important. Remember, the Cabinet Office is the only department to have devolved spend controls from the Treasury.

However, it needs digital leadership from all departments to be involved at the centre too. I’m not exactly sure what this would look like, as I know there are already networks of digital leaders in Whitehall. But I would argue that bringing digital leaders from departments into the fold at the centre, to discuss individual and common challenges, collectively, would go some way to getting everyone moving along together. Not only that, departments may better realise that GDS is a valuable resource.

Integrated with policy

There has been a grassroots movement happening in Whitehall in recent months called ‘One Team Government’. One that aims to more closely align the digital profession with the policy profession. One of the challenges of digital delivery in Whitehall is that policy ideas are formulated without the practical understanding of how they will be delivered (see: Universal Credit).

GDS needs to better understand policy, not just delivery. I know those involved in One Team Government don’t necessarily agree with formalising the movement, but I would argue that by tightly integrating policy from across Whitehall with GDS would help to drive more effective change. Get policy experts and digital experts working side by side to solve problems and come up with new innovative solutions.

Brexit

As we know, Brexit is sapping up resources from across Whitehall and is proving to be a huge distraction. A tonne of new systems are going to be needed as we exit from the EU and there is potential for chaos. We have heard almost nothing out of GDS about how it will help to solve these challenges. Surprising, given it would be the obvious candidate to take a thought leadership role in this area. In fact, it only just recently advertised for a Brexit chief – almost two years after the result of the referendum.

Why isn’t GDS putting forward bold ideas about Brexit? Why isn’t it taking the lead with departments about new solutions? Why have we heard barely anything out of it on this topic?

GDS could establish itself as invaluable if became the voice of reason in Whitehall for Brexit, if it would put forward some innovative ideas about how to solve some of Brexit’s biggest technical challenges. Stay quiet and others will take the lead. Brexit, whilst viewed by many as a disaster, is an opportunity for GDS to show the world what’s possible for digital government. It needs to step up.

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