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Why Whitehall needs to keep GDS in place

04/08/16

Opinion: Breaking up or moving the organisation would threaten to take the wind out of programmes with a sound rationale and a worthwhile promise

It’s inevitable that people are asking questions about the future of the Government Digital Service (GDS) in the aftermath of the sudden departure of Stephen Foreshew-Cain as its chief.

Whitehall_signThe nature of the change, with the instantaneous announcement of Kevin Cunnington’s appointment as director general, indicates that there were already plans for a shake-up of the leadership. This could be a precursor to a shake-up of the organisation.

It all provided fuel to recent rumours that leaders of some of the big Whitehall departments haven’t wanted to follow the organisation’s lead in their digital initiatives, that chief executive of the Civil Service John Manzoni is not impressed by its Government as a Platform programme, and that there have been behind-the-scenes moves to carve it up or pull GDS away from the Cabinet Office.

This wouldn’t be a surprise, especially with the change of government and the appointment of the inexperienced Ben Gummer as minister of the department. But there are reasons why it shouldn’t happen.

Sound reasoning

The rationale behind what GDS does is sound. Developing common digital solutions, its work on the data infrastructure and providing a common approach to technology services can all do a lot to improve government’s performance and save it a lot of money.

Some of its work has progressed at a frustratingly slow pace – it is five years since the Identify Assurance Programme that became GOV.UK Verify got under way – but they are programmes with a real value that few other government organisations can even think of taking on.

Some might be ready to run schemes that have an immediate value to themselves – hence the reports of HM Revenue & Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions working on their own identity assurance projects – but nobody is going to look at them from the cross-government perspective that GDS can take.

It has also provided a gathering point for people with the specialist skills who wouldn’t normally see the Civil Service as an attractive option. The informal culture of the place might have gone against the Whitehall grain, and in the Mike Bracken days it picked up a reputation for rubbing people up the wrong way. But it has helped to bring the ideas and energy of the IT industry under the tent, and thrown some fresh thinking into the broader discussions on service design and what makes the public feel comfortable.

Openness

Then it has been relatively open, by Whitehall standards, about the progress of its work. Not enough to satisfy us press hacks, but its blogs have provided some worthwhile insights and a perception of the main issues for its workstreams. It shares its work more readily than is common in central government and gives some weight to the claim that it wants to work with other agencies rather than simply imposing solutions.

It should also get some credit for beginning to work with local government. There is an issue over whether its original brief should have extended to local authorities – which was compounded when they were given nothing for digital projects in last year’s Spending Review – but in recent months it has got behind the drive for a Digital Service Standard for local government, and stepped up efforts to make GOV.UK Verify fit for councils’ purposes. These are signs that it is looking beyond the letter of its brief to the wider good.

The Cabinet Office is the sensible place for all this to be coordinated. GDS’s purpose aligns with that of the department, about the effective running of government, and it has a home where it is free of a specific set of service priorities and better placed to take in the whole picture.

The initial signs are that it is business as usual, at least on the surface, at GDS. Fresh posts on some workstreams have appeared along with indications that it is still hiring. But the tremors from a change of government will persist for a while and its foundations look less secure than a few months ago.

There is also the factor that during the last Parliament GDS benefited from the backing of Sir Francis Maude, who had the weight of the elder statesman in the Cameron Government. The money that it won in the Spending Review showed that the effect was still live even when he had moved on from the Cabinet Office. Whether this will carry the same force in Theresa May’s administration remains to be seen.

Protect foundations

But if the Government is serious about a leaner, fitter Whitehall it will shore up those foundations, and retain GDS as the focus of its digital efforts with the Cabinet Office. All that work on common platforms, data infrastructure, common technology services and better buying of IT makes sense, both for the financial savings and the integration of services.

It’s hard to think of anywhere other the Cabinet Office it could be focused more effectively. Move it to another department, and any complaints that it is directed at one set of priorities will intensify.

Sometimes there is a strong case for change in who leads what in government, but this isn’t one of them.

Postcript: Interesting tweet from Kevin Cunnington appearing a few hours after this was published: Delighted to have joined . Big job to do & definitely not breaking up the organisation. I'll be blogging my thoughts soon.

Image by Clay Gilliland, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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