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Uncertainties and ambitions at GDS

23/09/19

Mark Say Managing Editor

Interview: Interim director general Alison Pritchard outlines contingencies for change and the long term aims of the Government Digital Service

Alison Pritchard

This would be an uncertain time for anyone leading the Government Digital Service (GDS).

The Government has launched a search for a new chief digital information officer at a level higher than that of the GDS director general. This could affect the position of the incumbent – especially with the role currently occupied in an interim capacity – the structure of the organisation, and its long term funding will be determined by the Spending Review next year, which in turn will be influenced by whoever is in power at the time – another uncertainty.

Alison Pritchard is responding with a combination of planning for the contingencies while getting on with a number of long term initiatives. In a press briefing at the Sprint 19 event the interim director general – just a few weeks into the role after the departure of Kevin Cunnington – acknowledges the uncertainties and says plans for next year include a pitch for backing in the Spending Review, but that it will not detract from much of what GDS does.

“The immediate challenge we have faced has been in the way that government works and functions; the bringing in of the government digital information officer is to help the function at a significantly senior level,” she says.

“Not surprisingly, whenever there is a change of leadership you would expect it to want to do some urgent thinking around whether they are supported where they need. We are already doing some background work to make sure when the second permanent secretary takes up the appointment I can offer some options and we can work that through.”

New role

As for the new appointment, which the Government advertised last week, it is not yet clear if she is throwing her hat into the ring, but she talks about how it might relate to the GDS DG role.

“This is a more senior post with a scope across the function. We need to see how they want to be supported in that role. Am I doing some thinking? Yes. There’s no simple answer to that question. I’m aiming for whatever we do we can seamlessly move into a new arrangement.”

Her prime purpose at the event, staged by the Cabinet Office to highlight the work and priorities of GDS, was to flag up the five pillars of its work up to 2030: data, digital identity, security, legacy IT and user experience.

This comes with familiar ambitions about services being joined up, trusted and responsive to user needs. She joins John Manzoni, chief executive of the Civil Service, in saying that some work has been accelerated by the UK’s impending departure from the EU on 31 October, and highlights the ‘Get ready for Brexit’ pages on the GOV.UK website as an example of what can be achieved.

But there has been a reminder of the barriers with the recent controversy, initially raised on BuzzFeedNews, over the collection of data on how people are using GOV.UK. It has stirred up old anxieties over government use of personal data and there  have been warnings that it could be used for political purposes.

Nothing sinsister

Pritchard and senior GDS officials insist there has been nothing sinister in the exercise, which has been in its plans for some time and accelerated by the approach of Brexit.

“I’m satisfied the policy intent is absolutely right,” she says, adding that it is nothing more than would be expected from any organisation with a complex web portal, and is aimed at helping GDS to understand how services are working and how it can deal with issues such as helping people prepare for Brexit.

“For those who would question what we are doing there are many others who would say ‘I can’t believe it’s not already like that’,” says Jen Allum, head of GOV.UK.

“It would be helpful to disaggregate the issues on how we understand GOV.UK and how we deliver the better user experience. They should be considered as separate issues that need to be considered together in an appropriate way.”

Pritchard acknowledges that there are issues around the ethical use of data – made clear by messages from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – and says GDS takes these seriously, aiming to ensure that it is doing things right.

“Working through the regulations with ICO will always be complex because that guidance changes over time. We’ve got to make sure we work in the right space as that.”

Digital ID headaches

This spills into the area of digital identity, one of the five pillars and one that has caused plenty of headaches for government over the past decade. GDS has had its own problems with digital identities in the GOV.UK Verify programme, and before that Pritchard was involved in formal reviews of the ill fated National Identity Card Programme – which was dropped when the Coalition Government came to power in 2010 – and says she will draw on the experience.

 “Of course this is going to be the subject of much further debate as we progress it,” Pritchard says. “You’ll hear about digital identity progression and our aims of the future.

“My children are in their early twenties and the concept of having data joined up for better services is part of what they expect. How we have a joined up, sophisticated debate around the concept of digital identity is really critical.”

Another major element of GDS’s work has been its contribution to controls over the spending of Government departments in building digital services. Pritchard says this remains important, pointing to changes in its service design guidance and its support for departments and agencies in making changes.

More ambitiously, she sees scope, when the new government chief digital information officer is appointed, for the organisation to work more closely with HM Treasury.

Deliverability issue

“In terms of controlling expenditure, I want to see more of a partnership with HM Treasury to address the local deliverability of programmes at an early stage,” she says.

“Again with this concept of the function, you would expect the GCDIO to have a significant role in the early phases of development of potential programmes, allowing us to comment on deliverability and the pipeline route rather than at the last moment.

“We have formal and informal links with the Treasury. They are always looking for help in terms of making sure bids are right, proper, effective and deliverable.

“I think the area where we can strengthen our pitch with Treasury  is around transformational opportunities, where there is complexity in the way Spending Reviews are done on a bilateral basis, and we are looking to do something more agile to make sure risk is shared in the right way and that we encourage innovation.”

Along with this come the factors emphasised in her presentation to Sprint 19: ‘secure by default’, the ubiquitous digital identity, a robust data infrastructure, overcoming the barriers in legacy systems, and a better user experience for online services.

These are familiar ambitions, similar to those sounded by the predecessors of GDS in the 2000s, and it is notable that Pritchard often uses the term “at pace”. It hints at an acknowledgement that progress to date has been too slow to fulfil the ambitions of those days, and the priority is in accelerating the effort.

While the uncertainties around the Government, the new digital information chief and Pritchard’s role remain to be resolved, it is likely that the need to accelerate the work will remain the top priority.

Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0

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