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Lord Maude’s hard line on government digital

26/07/21

Mark Say Managing Editor

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There must be some head scratching over the two reports published by the Cabinet Office last week on the administration of digital initiatives in central government.

Francis Maude

At first glance Organising for Digital Delivery would be the key document as it focuses solely on that subject. But its foreword makes clear it was first presented last October and the contents suggest it has not been revised since then, even with the shake-up of responsibilities and the creation of the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) in January.

It includes an emphasis on the role of a new government chief digital officer (GCDO) with responsibilities that seem similar, but not identical, to what we know about those of Joanna Davinson at the head of the CDDO. There are other recommendations, highlighted in last week’s UKA story, that point towards but do not quite match the changes in January.

The second report by former Cabinet Office Minister Lord Maude has a much wider remit, as conveyed in its title, Review of the cross-cutting operation of spend controls, with digital accounting for one element of a much wider focus. Again, it seems a little out-of-date, with its foreword saying the review took place last year and no mention of the CDDO.

But it does address issues beyond those relevant to the January changes and which could have an influence on the next Spending Review.

These are against a background of disappointment with the drift of government digital over the past few years. Maude was a great champion for the Government Digital Service (GDS) in its early days, giving it the weight to have strong influence around Whitehall, and he bemoans the apparent decline its reach, the weakening of emphasis on delivery by the centre and the failure to deal with number of challenges in the digital and data area. The latter includes not dealing with technical debt and weak monitoring of operational performance.

GDS future

This influences some of his recommendations for the future of GDS, although he apparently did not anticipate its separation from the new CDDO and – as with the Digital Delivery report – there are repeated references to a future government chief digital officer.

The recommendations include a replacement of the real time performance platform gov.uk/performance, the automation task force being placed under the CEO of GDS, and a rebuilding of its capability to deliver digital transformation.

Along with this there is a proposal for a new “acceleration entity” under the chief digital officer with strong powers to create a whole government strategy for replacing obsolete technology lines and create a central register of all data centres used by government – and using this to drive improvements in performance, security and efficiency.

Maude’s proposals for procurement point to a hard line, with a re-introduction of the four “red lines” from the days of the Coalition Government: no IT contract to have a lifetime cost above £100 milliion; no contract extensions; no system integrator to also be a service provider for the same entity; and no hosting contract to run for more than two years.

Along with this is a call to reinstate the thresholds for a central digital function to gain oversight: £1 million and over for any IT contract and £100,000 for any digital spend.

Back office drive

This comes with a similar centralising drive for shared back office services that would involve onboarding all of those in central government into a maximum of five centres by the end of next year.

Maude also turns his attention to the data function, calling for a single canonical dataset for each category of information such as businesses and addresses, and a reboot of the open data programme. These again signal frustration at a loss of momentum from achievements of a few years ago.

It is clear that Maude has become frustrated with the hard line of his time in the Cabinet Office having been weakened, and that he blames this for return of old bad habits in parts of Whitehall. GDS had some clout during the Coalition because he was always ready to back it against resistance in other departments, and he had the weight in the Government to make it count.

The current incumbent Michael Gove also has a lot of influence, but it is unclear whether he would be as keen to back his top officials in arguments over what other departments should be doing with their digital and data functions.

It remains to be seen whether the report will reinvigorate the effort.

Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence

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