The Government Digital Service looks set to stay in place, but the new leadership are being careful not to set off any alarms in Whitehall
Mike Bracken has gone and, after a flurry of speculation on the future of the Government Digital Service (GDS), it is still in place and making plans for a fresh round of activity.
It was almost inevitable that the departure of a high profile figure such as Bracken would stir up talk of dissolution, or at least a radical change, for the organisation. This was compounded by the departure of several significant members of the team –including deputy director Tom Loosemore and director of strategy Russell Davies – in the period between Bracken’s announcement in early August and his leaving last week.
But the prospects of a dissolution or radical shake-up have receded, at least for the short term. Last week Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, who was rumoured to be an opponent of the GDS ‘government as a platform’ approach, reportedly expressed his support for the organisation. It has also won praise from Minister for the Cabinet Office Matthew Hancock, and in recent days lead officials have been going public on plans for the coming months.
This is no surprise, as breaking up the GDS would have been difficult to justify. A big chunk of its work – the rationalisation of websites under GOV.UK and the government as a platform strategy – has been tied closely to the government’s agenda of cutting public spending. Suddenly calling a halt to its work would have raised the prospect of a new round of departments duplicating their efforts and required a convincing alternative of which there has been no sign.
It would also have implied that the direction taken under Sir Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office under the coalition government and still a revered figure in the Conservative Party, had been wrong. We are still too close to Maude’s time for a body which he firmly supported to be dismissed.
But there have been hints that the GDS could be less ambitious in setting the digital and data agendas for central government. In Bracken’s time there had been talk of tension with departments, fuelled by a perception that it was staffed largely by techies with no background in government, and he has acknowledged in general terms the difficulties of pressing for change in Whitehall.
It is also worth noting that his successor as the government’s digital lead, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, has been careful not to ruffle feathers in his early statements. His first blog on data strategy emphasises that, while he thinks there is the need for some serious work and central coordination, data management should stay within departments. It is significant that he saw a need to say there is no desire to build a data empire at GDS.
This points towards a subtle change in how GDS deals with the rest of government. It was set up in the early days of the coalition on the basis that the previous government’s IT strategy was on the wrong track, accompanied by combative language from ministers that probably fuelled an early distrust in other departments. It has achieved a lot, but the limits of its influence became clear when it withdrew from its role in the Department for Work and Pension’s Universal Credit programme in late 2013. Some departments remain determined to do things their own way.
Now it seems to be adopting a more collegiate approach, emphasising that departments make their own decisions while aiming to pull all within a consensus. There might be less evangelising, fewer announcements on broad strategies for Whitehall IT, and more low key selling of solutions.
It might also place less emphasis on solutions developed in-house, and more emphasis on standard products and services developed by others. This could entail a reduction in the GDS headcount, but it would ease fears about empire building.
It amounts to a shift in emphasis more than wholesale change, but this might be what’s needed to maintain the momentum built up in Bracken’s time.
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