Government digital guru Loosemore stumbles into diplomatic incident

Could some of the shine be wearing off the Government Digital Service, so soon after it wowed the IT world as a refreshing change to the old, fusty Whitehall model of times past?

As GDS deputy director Tom Loosemore addressed the Socitm Spring conference in London, distinct rumblings could be heard from an audience which has so far been very receptive to the new unit's modern, flexible approach.

Socitm, in fact, has been hugely complimentary about the GDS' modern, flexible methods of starting up projects quickly, testing them live, developing them over many iterations and then scaling them up.

This approach has certainly paid off, Loosemore said: the service's biggest project of all so far, the single central online government services portal GOV.UK, will this week welcome its final departmental partners, meaning all government departments now provide online services through the portal. The whole project was launched quickly and iteratively, with a new simplicity that has resulted in a website containing fewer than 10% of previous separately hosted pages and is set to save as much as £70m on previous arrangements.

The service has replaced the old "triangle of despair" - legacy systems; lengthy and complex procurement processes; and PRINCE 2 project management - with the iterative process of alpha, beta, and live, informed by constant user testing and feedback, he said.

Loosemore gave a striking example of how the new approach was sweeping through Whitehall.

A new online system for people to apply for Power of Attorney on behalf of others had taken 10 working days to procure, 24 days to build and code a prototype alpha system for live testing and a beta was due to go live in two months, he said. The whole project had been commissioned from a small business using the G-Cloud for around £50,000 a year, compared with a quote obtained from one large existing provider of £4m set up plus £1.8m per year.

So what was the problem?

The rumblings came when Loosemore described how the GDS is beginning to throw its weight around a bit more within government and across the public sector, in terms that were considered less-than-diplomatic to some audience members who have spent their whole careers running IT projects in the public sector and are not quite ready to accept that these careers have wholly been in vain.

In talking to public agencies and pushing cultural change, Loosemore said, the focus was now being removed from technology departments to such an extent that the very idea that IT professionals could lead IT projects has been called into question. While it is essential for a modern organisation to have someone leading IT projects on the board, that person does not need to be technical, he said.

"We don't talk to IT departments other than to ask what legacy can offer," he said, to rumbles in the room. "Thanks very much!" muttered one IT chief, drily.

Will GDS mind ruffling a few feathers? One suspects not. But it will also have to keep the IT departments on board if the new non-technical, strategic, business-process driven vision of IT is to succeed at last throughout the public sector.