Interview: Cabinet Office Minister for Implementation Oliver Dowden, talks of the evolution of the Government Digital Service and says its future remains in the department
The Government Digital Service (GDS) is spreading its wings in some areas but seems to be pulling them in others. Some notable changes have emerged in its approach this year, with an emphasis on its role in promoting innovation along with a loosening of its controls of technology spending in Whitehall and a shift of most of its data functions to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
It has provided Oliver Dowden, the recently appointed minister for implementation in the Cabinet Office, with oversight of an organisation that, while not exactly different, is operating within changed parameters.
The spreading of wings was visible last week in the launch of the GovTech Challenge, in which GDS has invited companies to bid for shares of a £20 million pot to develop digital solutions for social challenges. This is something of a departure from the established focus of working with government bodies into the role of working more closely with the IT industry, particularly SMEs.
Dowden acknowledges it is a shift in direction – at least to an extent.
“It’s a bit of both, part of a journey,” he says, speaking with journalists at the Cabinet Office’s Sprint 18 event.
“When we first started the process there were some big easy wins to be had by making sure whole areas of government that were not accessible digitally became accessible. The first phase was getting a digital interface, but too often behind that lay analogue systems.
“So the second challenge becomes how you digitise through that and get efficiency savings that come with the digital process behind the face of it. We’ve still got more work to do that, but we can look at where are the next challenges.
“I think there are huge challenges around govtech and that takes us into areas where you wouldn’t think there would be a digital solution – like in identifying the Daesh images (the subject of the first Govtech Challenge) – and you use that to expand the boundaries of digital.
“So you get an end point where there’s fully digitised government, and in the process of that you’re going to have private sector involvement. You’re going to stimulate the private sector, which is a good thing.”
In some ways this is a progression from the longstanding intent of the Cabinet Office to enable SMEs to win a larger share of government business. Dowden joins the cheerleading for the fact that smaller companies accounted for 48% of sales by value and 70% by volume in the latest figures for G-Cloud, and points to the potential to help them in overseas markets through the plan to make the Digital Marketplace available for other national governments.
But it comes at a time when there has been speculation about GDS’s influence in Whitehall being on the wane. Some observers made a lot of the Government’s recent decision to shift the data policy function into DCMS, suggesting this was a precursor to the whole organisation following or being trimmed down.
In addition, there has been a turnover of ministers with the digital government brief over the past three years. But Dowden insists that the perception of declining political support for GDS does not reflect the reality.
“I’m determined to provide my support as a minister for finding benefits for both the users of public services, improving the user experience, and thinking about how we can embrace the challenges of the future,” he says.
“What I can do is try and identify where the frontier is and push it, which is why I identified with govtech. I can both challenge internally and make sure we are remaining at the cutting edge, and be a public facing champion, which is why I have spoken at Sprint and have more events coming.”
Tech spend changes
The perception has also been fed by the recent change in central government’s technology spending rules, which replaced the need for approval of individual projects over a baseline value with a requirement to develop a 15-month ‘pipeline of relevant plans. Dowden counters this with a claim that it reflects the progress made in improving procurement over the past few years.
“When Francis Maude (the senior minister from 2010-15) introduced the controls process it was to ensure that Cabinet Office made sure we had a grip on the procurement process. We’ve improved the processes within departments.
“Now as we get to a point where we feel confident that those are working well we can start to survey the entire pipeline. We can say we are pretty confident in relation to most of those and that these are the things we want to pull out.
“It’s about ensuring a more efficient approach where we can give departments greater freedom and we, at a more senior central level, can focus more on the departments where we need to do more work with them and on the projects at the higher risk end.
“It’s really about managing the evolution of this process.”
He adds that the shift of the data function had been under discussion for a long time and was agreed before his appointment, and that it is “a more sensible alignment” as many of the issues it deal with apply to the wider economy. And he is keen to emphasise that he has a close working with relationship with the DCMS secretary of state Matt Hancock.
This comes with an assertion that GDS is staying within the Cabinet Office.
“In terms of the core function of GDS, which is the delivery of government digital services and remaining a world leader in digital services, that completely remains within the Cabinet Office,” he says.
His speech to Sprint 18 made the point that GDS is evolving, with eyes on supporting the digitisation of what he described as the analogue middle element of many services, reflecting the commitment for more end-to-end digital services in the Government’s Transformation Strategy.
GDS is also pushing forward with the step-by-step navigation for many public services on GOV.UK. This has been developed for a handful of life events, with the one for learning to drive a car having been used more than 1 million times since its launch in November, and Dowden said about 400 others have been identified as ripe for the approach.
His comments were accompanied by a round of flag waving for GDS at the conference. A collection of figures was flashed up to highlight progress in key areas, including 40.2 million notifications sent by GOV.UK Notify and 1.14 million payments by GOV.UK Pay last year, along with 340 installations of Gov Wifi and the training of over 8,000 students in the GDS Academy.
They also included the use of GOV.UK Verify over 6 million times to access services, although this is still widely regarded as running way behind schedule and remains the issue that is doing the most to create negative perceptions of GDS. Social media comments on its new approach of encouraging its use for private sector service suggest the sceptics are not impressed.
It will take a lot of work and probably some luck to sustain the buoyant mood on show at the conference, but Dowden conveys a grasp of the priorities and a genuine enthusiasm that could make a difference to what the organisation can achieve.
In recent years the turnover of ministers has made things harder for the organisation, but Dowden leaves the impression he could reassert its influence in Whitehall and beyond.
Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0