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The Emperor and his clothes revisited: GDS isn't working (part 1)



Guest blog: In the first of a series, Alan Mather says the Government Digital Service has some impressive achievements to its name, but is now in need of a different approach to ratchet up delivery


In October 2012, I questioned whether the Emperor had any clothes on.

Somewhere in that piece I said: “The question is really how to turn what GDS do into the way everyone else does it.  In parallel with GDS’ agile implementations, departments are out procuring their next ‘generation’ of IT services.

“When you consider that most are still running desktop operating systems released in 2000 and that many are working with big suppliers wrapped up in old contracts supporting applications that often saw the light of day in the 80s or, at best, the 90s,’generation’ takes on a new meaning.  

“To those people, agile, iterative, user experience focused services are things they see when they go home and check Facebook, use Twitter or Dropbox or have their files automagically backed up into the cloud. Splitting procurements into towers, bringing in new kinds of integrators, promising not to reward ‘bad’ suppliers and landing new frameworks by the dozen is also different of course, but not enough to bridge the gap between legacy and no legacy.”

And then: “The question is whether the GDS model is the one that achieves scale transformation right across government, or whether it is another iteration in a series of waves of change that, in the end, only create local change, rather than truly structural change.”

Insufficient change

My sense, now, is that it's the latter - another iteration, but one that hasn't created as much change as the inputs would suggest, and that today is creating far less change than it did early in its life when charismatic leadership, a brilliant team, an almost messianic zeal and bulletproof political support were in place.

GDS has done some brilliant and world leading stuff but has also failed to deliver on its mission. Simply, GDS isn't working. We need to think again about what it's going to take to deliver the vision; something that has been largely consistent for much of the last two decades but still seems far away. 

This is tricky: we don't want to lose the good stuff and we clearly want to get the huge pile of missing stuff done. The current approach is a dead end so we need to do something different; with the appointment of a new minister, now could be the time for the change.

Every few years for at least the last two decades, HM Government has revised its approach to the co-ordination of all things IT. Throughout that time there’s always been a central function to set standards (govtalk for example), engage with industry to get the most done at the best price, co-ordinate services, do some direct delivery (,, GOV.UK, etc) and also teach government what to do and how to do it - the art of the possible.

It started with the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA), followed by Central Information Technology Unit (CITU), then the Office of the e-Envoy (OeE), the e-Government Unit (eGU), the Office of the Government CIO (OCIO) and, most recently, the Government Digital Service (GDS). Some of these  ̶  CCTA and CITU for instance  ̶  overlapped but had slightly different roles.

After each revision, there was a change of leader, a change of approach and a change of focus. Some were for the better, some not so much. Nearly seven years after the Martha Lane Fox report that brought GDS into being, it’s time for another of those revisions.

Celebrate success

We should, of course, celebrate the successes of GDS, because there have been some big results, learn the lessons (of GDS and all of its predecessors) and shutter the failures. So let’s first laud the successes.

GDS have, in my view, been responsible for four big changes at the heart of government.

1) User focus and an agile approach. GDS has shown government that there is another way to deliver projects (not just web, but all projects) through focusing on user needs, building initial capability and then iterating to bring on successive functionality.

Whilst this wasn’t new and still isn’t yet fully adopted, there isn’t anyone in government who doesn’t know about, and have a view on, the topic; and every department and agency across the board is at least experimenting with the approach and many have taken it completely to heart.

The two dozen exemplars showed departments that the new approach was possible and how they might go about it, infecting a new generation of civil servants, and some of the old guard, with an incredible enthusiasm. Assess user needs, build some and ship, assess results, build a bit more and ship again (repeat until false) is understood as a viable approach by far more of government than it was even five years ago, let alone 15.

2) Website consolidation. What was just an idea on some slides nearly 15 years ago, as seen in the picture below, is now close to reality.

The vast bulk of government information sits on GOV.UK, a site that didn’t exist in 2010. It receives some 12-14 million visitors in a typical week. We’ve gone from a couple of thousand websites to a handful (not quite to one, but near enough to make little difference). Bringing together the content and giving the citizen the impression that government is all joined up is a necessary precursor to achieving lift off with transactions.

3) Spend Controls. Before the Coalition Government came in, departments spent money however they wanted to, despite the best efforts of various bodies to impose at least some controls.

There’s now a governance process in place that reviews projects at various stages and, whilst the saves are likely not as big as has been claimed, the additional review focuses departmental minds and encourages them to look at all options. Controlling and, more specifically, directing spend is the mainstay of changing how government does IT and will support further re-use of platforms and technologies.

4) Openness, transparency and championing issues. Government blogs were few and far between before 2010; official ones didn’t really exist.

Now GDS staff (and, as a result, departmental people too) now blog incessantly, to talk about what they are doing, share best practice, lay down gauntlets (e.g. championing the issue of necessary diversity on panels through the GDS Parity Pledge), and to help recruit new people from inside and outside of government to the cause.  Working in the open is a great way to show the outside, as well as the inside, world that things really have changed.

Each of those is a significant achievement and each has been sustained, at least to some degree, throughout the time GDS has been active  ̶  which deserves additional celebration. Having an idea is the easy bit, getting it done that’s the hard bit  ̶  the latter is where most people turn around and give up. Each of these achievements does, however, come with a succession of buts which I will explore in later posts.

Need for rethink

In the world of agile, failure is inevitable. The point, though, is to fail fast and at a lower cost, correct the errors and get it right the next time. Getting the next phase of the online agenda right requires some significant rethinking, an analysis of the failures and the setting of a new direction.

This is not to say that what GDS has done to date isn't good  ̶   the successes outlined above should rightly be lauded. But it was not and is not enough to create the necessary change. Transformation is an overused word and one that is rarely delivered on, least of all in an agile, iterative world; but a step change in the way citizens interact with government is still possible.

So, to create that necessary level of change, we need to put in place a different approach, one that ratchets up the pace of delivery with departments, one that integrates tightly with the outside world and one that doesn't repeat the past but that embraces the future.

The following posts in this series will look at this with the aims of constructively challenging what's been done so far and providing a framework for setting things up successfully for that next phase.

Alan Mather has held several digital roles in central government, including chief executive officer of the Cabinet Office e-Delivery Team (a predecessor to GDS), and is now director at Ardea Enterprises. This has been republished from his In the Eye of the Storm blog and conveys his personal view. There’s scope for alternative perspectives, or agreement, through his blog page’s comment function.

We're continuing the series through this week:

Part 2 - The content mystery

 Part 3 - The reboot

Part 4 - GOV.UK Verify

Part 5 - No vision, no ambition

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