Government Digital Service loses “genius” and “national treasure”. Is Sir Humphrey winning campaign to dismember GDS?

,By Tony Collins

The dismembering of the Government Digital Service is underway, says Andrew Greenway, a former programme manager working on digital projects for the Cabinet Office. He now works as an independent consultant.

His comments in Civil Service World came, coincidentally, as another top GDS official prepared to leave.

Paul Downey, GDS’s Technical Architect – who is described by former colleagues as a “legend” and “national treasure” – has left to join the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Downey is the latest in a long line of leading government technologists to leave GDS, which will confirm in the minds of many that Sir Humphrey has won the campaign to stop GDS interfering in the 100 year-old autonomy of individual government departments.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox set up GDS in 2011 to break down departmental silos and have a “single version of the truth” for everything that government touches.

Former prime minister David Cameron said the creation of GDS “is one of the great unsung triumphs of the last Parliament”

Downey helped departments to create new digital services. He represented GDS on the UK government Open Standards Board. Formerly he was BT’s Chief Web Services Architect.

In reply to Downey’s tweet announcing his departure, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, former Executive Director of GDS, tweeted, “When people talked about standing on the shoulders of giants, they were talking about you.”

Mike Bracken, Foreshew-Cain’s predecessor as head of GDS, tweeted about Downey’s departure, “You’re a legend, my friend”.

Tom Loosemore, founder of GDS who, in 2012, wrote the Government Digital Strategy for GDS, also tweeted praise for Downey.

Loosemore left GDS in 2015 for the Co-op group. In an interview shortly after leaving, Loosemore said, “The shape of government needs to change … Businesses don’t run on siloed departments any more and neither should government.”

Liam Maxwell, National Technology Adviser at HM Government who used to be the government’s chief technology officer and who ran teams at GDS, tweeted,”You have been total inspiration to me and hundreds of others”.


Greenway said GDS retains people, prestige and power.  “There is no question that the civil service is in a much stronger position on digital than it was six years ago. Some of the work going on in government, including the teams in GDS building digital platforms, remains world-leading”.

Despite bleeding skills elsewhere, GDS has not experienced a terminal brain drain, says Greenway. “Many of those who have stayed are doing a heroic job in trying circumstances.”

But he added that officials working on digital programmes in other departments describe the GDS team as well-meaning but increasingly peripheral.

 It now looks as if the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will take over from GDS. But Greenway warns against replacing a weakened centre with diffuse departmental effort.

“The point of GDS was to have a single team that could act as the voice of users for government as a whole. To do that well, it needed a mandate covering data as well as design, operations and technology. It also had to have a clear mission. Increasingly, it has neither of these.

“The departmental shape of government gives no incentive for any non-central department to step in. It is a great shame that the two most well-placed advocates for an effective centre — the Treasury and Sir Jeremy Heywood — have proved unable or unwilling to stop the rot …

“The dismembering of GDS is underway.”


GDS was a great idea. But Sir Humphries tend not to like great ideas if they mean internal change. Permanent secretaries are appointed on the basis that they are a safe pair of hands.  Safe in this context means three things:

  • not spilling the beans however rancid they may be
  • valuing  department’s unique heritage, administrative traditions, staff and procedures
  • talking daily of the need for large-scale “transformative” change while ensuring it doesn’t happen.

Thus, for the past few years, GDS professionals have found that top civil servants want central government departments to continue to be run as separate bureaucratic empires with their uniqueness and administrative traditions preserved.

GDS technologists, on the other hand, want to cut the costs of running Whitehall and the wider public sector while making it easier for the public to interact with government. This puts GDS at odds with Whitehall officials who believe that each departmental board knows best how to run its department.

In the long run GDS cannot win – because it was set up by politicians who wanted change but whose stewardship was temporary while the will to dismember GDS comes from the permanent secretariat who do not welcome change and have the power to resist it.

More’s the pity because taxpayers will continue to spend a fortune on preserving departmental silos and huge, unnecessarily-complex technology contracts.

Andrew Greenway on the dismembering of GDS – Civil Service World

GDS deserves credit for its successes – Government Computing

GDS to lose some policy control? – Computer Weekly

Government Digital Service blog

Government Digital Service being “dismembered”

8 responses to “Government Digital Service loses “genius” and “national treasure”. Is Sir Humphrey winning campaign to dismember GDS?

  1. Tony

    You are one of the great campaigning journalists. Nothing I say is meant to take that away from you and nothing you do now can take it away from you …

    … nothing, including this triumph of hope over experience which causes you to insist that GDS has made a positive contribution to public administration even though it has failed in every one of its stated objectives. How else could DCMS, of all the unlikely organisations, have become a threat to GDS?

    Francis Maude is a genuine radical. He clearly believes in disrupting organisations to improve them. My guess is that he would nuke today’s GDS without a second thought. He achieved savings by making public servants redundant, changing their pensions, getting rid of unnecessary property, vetoing unnecessary expenditure and telling suppliers that they could cut their charges or get out, take it or leave it.

    GDS’s failures with visa applications, meanwhile, and the Student Loans Company and, most famously, farm payments, saved nothing.

    The need for savings to be made was the result of the credit crunch and, most spectacularly – in a crowded field of scandalous Whitehall waste and incompetence – the result of the failure of the NHS’s NPfIT project, chronicled most effectively by … you.

    That’s why there was a change of culture and that, along with Brexit, is why the pendulum will not swing back.

    GDS never laid a glove on the big departments of state. The Home Office, God help us, continues to be an anti-matter beacon of darkness, DWP is helpless in the swamp as usual and the NHS is a law unto itself, if not a country unto itself. You say that it is a fact that it is said that the big departments of state want GDS broken up. I put it to you that it is a fact that it is said that the big departments of state couldn’t give a toss what happens to GDS. (“Peripheral” is the latest and politer epithet.)

    DVLA and DVSA have been quite good at on-line public services since long before GDS and no thanks to GDS even if GDS do try to take the credit. Like G-Cloud, which they got from the Home Office and where they now seem to be intent on using it to create more old-fashioned SIs. They copied Eduroam and claim the credit for GovWifi. They got DWP’s digital academy and now it’s thanks to GDS that we have a digital academy. Passport applications were on-line 10 years before GDS existed but now we are to believe that they are only on-line thanks to GDS.

    Local government on-line public services really aren’t bad and, to put it mildly, local government has nothing to learn from GDS. The retail banks and the major retailers are supremely uninterested in GDS. GDS offer no assistance to Open Banking and they can’t help with age verification. If GDS ever insert themselves into our national and international payments systems we’ll be back to barter in less than a week.

    What have GDS achieved? Let the Disclosure and Barring Service and HM Land Registry beware, because Internet, now that we live in the Internet Era, the fourth Industrial Revolution, jibba, jabba, GDS have caused hundreds of thousands of people who have registered with GOV.UK Verify (RIP) to hand over reams of personal information to so-called “identity providers” who store it all over the world and share it, out of anyone’s control. That doesn’t happen with the Government Gateway.

    The Government Gateway has been starved of attention for 12 years now and yet it still knocks spots of GDS’s derisory GOV.UK Verify (RIP).

    And then there’s HMRC. To all intents and purposes, central government IT is HMRC IT. They’re expensive to run and they make mistakes, as you put it, but unlike GDS they deliver, at scale.

    “Valid points”, you say of my previous comment. Thank you. Put your campaigning hat back on, Tony. Please. Hope does not amount to experience.


    • Thank you for contributing David.

      In the past we’ve shared similar views and I agree with a lot of what you say. Yes, GDS has been involved in projects that went badly wrong but GDS’s culture, when originally set up, required that lessons were learned from failings. It was a culture that accepted failure as a learning process. That was a culture that set it apart from the rest of Whitehall where past failures are not even recognised as failures. There are still civil and public servants who do not accept the NHS IT programme – NPfIT – as a failure.

      We don’t learn much from planes that land safely. The aviation world learns a lot from planes that crash. That’s why aviation is so safe today. Whitehall rarely if ever learns from mistakes, in part because it doesn’t own up to them even when the failures are reported in detail by the National Audit Office.

      You have only to hear MPs on the Public Accounts Committee question civil servants at the Department for Work and Pensions for an hour or more to hear how expertly mistakes are disowned and denied.

      GDS, for all its faults, had a culture of doing things differently. Yes its over-emphasis on digital in the payment of farming subsidies might have been inappropriate when some farmers have poor broadband coverage and limited IT skills. On the other hand, farmers’ representatives told me many farmers have computers in their tractors and have an understanding of digital mapping that defies the stereotype.

      When GDS has failed with big projects, there have usually been turf wars: it has tried to inculcate a new way of doing things in departments that, by tradition, resent outside interference. The Rural Payments Agency had a history of IT-related disasters long before GDS was created,. The administration of student loans has a decades-old history of IT disasters.

      What concerns me about GDS now is that the culture will change – and may already have changed – as it becomes swamped by the influence of Sir Humphrey. Many top technologists and impressive leaders have already left GDS. Perhaps some of them thought that the age-old Whitehall culture was gradually tightening a noose on GDS innovations.

      I agree with you completely on the Home Office, DWP and NHS. I also agree that HMRC, for its faults, delivers at scale and it deserves credit for breaking up its IT supplier monopoly that dates back to 1994. DVLA has had a chequered IT history and applying for a passport online used to be tiresome business that required some documents to be sent in the post. It’s now much easier. Indeed, since the advent of GDS, there is now an expectation you can do things online when dealing with government. For me, it works impressively well.

      It would be a pity if GDS were swallowed up by Whitehall’s largely Victorian culture. It would be another triumph for civil servants who will talk daily of the need for change and will do everything in their power to stop it happening. Although we disagree on whether GDS is a good or bad thing, I am grateful to you for putting across your arguments so well. Tony Collins.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Tim Morton

    thanks for the article and the comments – jury clearly out – seem to remember GDS getting burned by Universal Credit along with everyone else – any thoughts on the DWPdigital in house development and academies?

    The Institute for Government interviews with ex ministers is fascinating


    • Thanks Tim – and for the links. I agree – the interviews are fascinating. Yes GDS ran into trouble with Universal Credit but I don’t know how much freedom it had at the time. In contesting DWP FOI decisions and appeals and looking through its laboured justifications for not releasing IT-related reports, I can see that the DWP is a controlling organisation. Its hierarchy seems to resent outsiders – even when they have joined the DWP senior management. I haven’t looked into DWPdigital but it seems to be an impressive mini version of GDS. I don’t know whether DWPdigital is at the heart of DWP’s operations or on the margins. Does its innovative culture fit with the DWP culture? How many Sir Humphries really want change? Tony Collins


  3. “Kafka would have understood”, says one of your commentators.

    It looks more as though GDS has become one of the SIs they were set up to replace. GDS have been given £450 million to tide them over for 2016-20. They have around 800 staff, a swanky new headquarters, a set of guaranteed government contracts and a claque of supporters in the media.

    This is not suffering as Kafka would have understood it.

    What Kafka would have spotted is this sinister desire of GDS’s to provide a single source of truth.

    Luckily, realising that ambition is beyond their powers.

    Most of the work done on GDS’s single government domain and on the 25 exemplars is described by Tom Loosemore himself as putting lipstick on pigs.

    GDS’s attempts since then to provide a national identity assurance service have failed. Central government departments have not stood in GDS’s way, they have tried to use GOV.UK Verify (RIP) and it simply doesn’t meet their requirements. Ditto local government. Ditto the banks and the major retailers.

    GOV.UK Verify (RIP) doesn’t meet the users’ requirements either. If I want to apply for a Blue Badge, why on earth should I need to give all my personal information to Safran, which is what GOV.UK Verify (RIP) requires.

    That’s Kafkaesque. Safran can store my personal information anywhere in the world and share it with whoever they like, out of my control and out of GDS’s control. All I wanted was a Blue Badge.

    More Kafaesque still, unnoted by GDS, Safran don’t even own the business any more. They’ve sold it. Safran Morpho has morphed into Idemia.

    Mike Bracken described Whitehall policy-making as an intellectual pissing match. Stephen Foreshew-Cain accused Whitehall policy-makers of being inert. What did they offer instead? Policy based on data alone. No silos. Because they would have all the data. GDS, the super-silo of all the silos. No need for Parliament, according to Franz Foreshew-Cain. Just data analytics.

    If GDS is dismembered, what do we lose? The dervishes wail but they can never answer. Nothing.


    • Thank you David. Valid points but before Francis Maude created GDS central departments continued to spend billions on mega IT contracts while frustrating attempts by the Public Accounts Committee to get to the full truth. GDS set a new standard for the way central government operates. If it can force departments to test new systems in an identical environment to the live service, that single requirement, on its own, could help to avoid more IT-related disasters. Over decades, tens of billions of pounds have been lost on failed government IT-based projects and programmes. GDS isn’t cheap to run but if it saves billions in the future it’s existence will be more than justified, even if it makes mistakes in the meantime. It may be a strange argument for me to make but the fact that the DWP and HMRC are said to want GDS disbanded and the skills distributed among departments is a good reason to keep GDS and make it much stronger. I have reported on Whitehall IT for decades and I saw no real change in culture until GDS was created. Now I am regularly surprised and pleased at how much I can do online when it comes to central departments. Without GDS, the pendulum will swing back and departments could revert to the empire-retaining, wasteful mega IT contracts of the past. Sir Humphrey wants to be able to do what he wants. That’s why he doesn’t want GDS. Tony Collins


  4. Thank you very much for this report, Tony.
    Kafka would have understood.
    I never wanted to understand the hypocritical way of ‘Sir H. thinking and doing’ and hence exhausted myself.
    Thus, I have every sympathy with those who are trying to operate in the most beneficial way but are essentially thwarted by empire builders.
    I think we have to wait for these little empires within government to run themselves into the ground before real experts, like Andrew Greenway, are allowed to take the lead and effect progressive change.

    Happy Chinese New Year (we have to find something to celebrate!)
    Regards, Zara.


    • Thank you Zara. Kafka would probably smile if he were alive today to know that the inward-looking cultures of central departments (not all by any means) are still essentially Victorian. Just as some 18th century MPs were outraged at the reporting of Parliament by some newspapers, there are some civil servants at the DWP who are, to judge from FOI responses, utterly dismissive of attempts by outsiders to find out how well, or badly, the DWP spends public money on major IT projects. How dare the public know how we – the DWP – spend our money? That’s one reason GDS is a breath of fresh air. True, it’s not cheap to run and it doesn’t get everything right but the way it operates – non-hierarchical and an approach that it’s acceptable to fail cheaply and quickly – sets a cultural standard for Whitehall and the wider public sector.

      Liked by 1 person

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