After much progress in recent years, Government IT is at risk of going into reverse. But a return to ways of the past, and routine costly failures of big technology projects, is not inevitable.
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see what has been happening at, and to, the Government Digital Service.
Much has been achieved by GDS. Some of its best work has been to encourage thousands of civil servants across government – mainly aged under 40 – to believe it’s possible to simplify their work, and do it better and more cheaply.
GDS is far from perfect but its philosophy when it makes mistakes is to fail cheaply. Its culture of always questioning, always challenging runs counter to Whitehall’s hierarchical traditions.
Since the creation of GDS it has become possible for the citizen to interact with government in ways that were not possible before. For example it’s possible to replace an old paper driving licence and update your address entirely online, once your photo has been digitised as part of, say, a (largely online) passport renewal.
Indeed the influence of GDS has been a breeze of fresh air blowing through fusty Whitehall corridors. A GDS rule is to put the interests of citizens, rather than the interests of departments and agencies, at the centre of its activities.
But it is becoming clear that the old guard in Whitehall still see GDS people as “weird hippies”. That’s how some in government have regarded GDS people, according to former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.
Something similar was said by Mike Bracken, former executive director of GDS. In a conversation last month with the Centre for Public Impact, Bracken said the civil service old guard saw GDS people as “insurgent, incoming rule-breakers”.
Maude and Bracken’s recent comments suggest that Sir Humphrey has an unshakeable belief that government administration is a smooth-running machine that needs the occasional service but no major repairs. GDS favours pervasive reform.
Maude created GDS in 2011. He was an ardent reformer of Government IT and the civil service. But since he left last year Sir Humphrey appears to be regaining the control that he ceded temporarily to Maude and GDS’s innovators. This is some of what has happened since Maude’s departure:
- GDS has lost Mike Bracken its highly-regarded executive director. He has gone to the Co-op as CIO.
- GDS has just lost Bracken’s successor Stephen Foreshew-Cain who has fanned the breeze of fresh air referred to above. Foreshew-Cain said in his blog in June 2016 that cultures and behaviours in central government are “years behind the rest of the world”. He said, “At GDS, we’re fortunate because we’re a relatively new organisation. We were able to build our own culture from scratch.”
- HMRC is to lose its plain-speaking reformer Mark Dearnley. His continued role in replacing the department’s “Aspire” contract was seen by public accounts MPs as vitally important. Attempts to renew his three-year CIO contract when it expires in September 2016 appear to have failed, or perhaps have not been earnest enough.
- The department whose introspective, defensive and secretive culture has remained largely intact since the days when it was called the Department for Social Security – and whose main systems have been run by the same big IT suppliers for decades – is gaining influence in the Government IT field in the post-Maude era.
- Maude said in his Centre for Public Impact interview that some senior bureaucrats were capable of “sabotage” if they disapproved strongly of an externally-imposed development in their department – such as a Cabinet Office “shared service” initiative. Maude said.
“Things like shared services – we struggled getting departments to give up their shared services, even when there had been a collective policy agreement that it should happen. What you then get is sniping. You get the different bits of government who want it to fail, who will sometimes, actually sabotage things, which is pretty disgraceful. That’s pretty outrageous, but it did happen; and it does happen; and that won’t be over yet.”
- GDS lost Tom Loosemore, its deputy director, who initially led the development of the gov.uk website and tweeted on 1 August 2016 – the date of Fanshew-Cain’s announced departure – about “a day of the long digital knives”.
Digital chiefs evicted?
Derek Du Preez at Diginomica suggests that, according to his sources, “digital chiefs at the Home Office, DWP and HMRC have either been evicted by their permanent secretaries or are leaving their posts”.
UKAuthority reports rumours of “sustained resistance to the work of GDS in some Whitehall departments. Several departments were resisting GDS’s Government as a Platform programme in favour of working on their own digital solutions.
The article said that John Manzoni, as head of the civil service, “has not been in favour of it [GDS] setting a strong lead for other parts of Whitehall”.
Andrew Greenway, formerly of GDS, says the loss of two GDS leaders in less than a year “feels like a victory for those who believe a government organised along Victorian lines is fit for fixing today’s problems”.
“What’s playing out in the shadows of this strange summer is a timeless Whitehall battle. On one side those who seek to direct from the centre; on the other big departments who prefer to be left to their own devices. It’s a battle that goes back 150 years. The centre is not holding.
“That’s OK if everyone is on the path towards improvement. Whitehall’s watchers are not saying this.
“Meanwhile, GDS is following the course charted by other successful centralised reformers in government. Icarus-like soaring for a few years. The occasional flutter of feathers. Then a headlong dive into the timeless, inky depths of the bureaucratic abyss. The sun always rises, Whitehall always wins.
“The defenestration of GDS has accelerated under the reign of John Manzoni. This is perplexing.
“The Civil Service’s CEO is there to drive big institutional priorities past departmental parochialism. Digital is one of these, giving it a seat at the top table. Yet as GDS’ influence has degraded. Chief Digital Officer roles in departments are also disappearing. Kevin’s departure comes hard on the heels of the Home Office scrapping their own CDO role.
“Manzoni came in to manage relations between the centre and the departments from a position of strength. From the outside, it now looks like he is being toyed with by the Civil Service’s most experienced turf warriors in HMRC and DWP.
“Permanent secretaries are gleefully reclaiming their territory…”
Does all this mean that Maude’s reforms of Government IT will soon fizzle out, heralding the return of the “powerful oligopolies” that Maude referred to when speaking of IT suppliers that presided over large costly IT project failures?
Leading bureaucrats approve of changes when it means more money is spent on policy implementation that brings with it a commensurate increase in power and influence of their department.
What some leading officials deeply resent is change that diminishes the power and influence of the department, especially if the change is instigated by people outside the department. It’s understandable, therefore, that some but not all permanent secretaries and their senior officials will resent any interference in their IT affairs by the Cabinet Office and GDS.
But interference there has to be. Chris Chant, former CIO at DEFRA, said in 2011 that the vast majority of Government IT was “outrageously expensive”. He said, “Things have changed and we haven’t.”
Under Maude, Bracken and GDS’s influence, things have gradually changed for the better.
But if Sir Humphrey now succeeds to getting GDS broken up it will show that, when it comes to the administration of central government, it is the leading civil servants who are in charge, not short-term ministers. Bracken says that if departmental and agency bureaucrats strongly disapprove of a centrally-agreed initiative they should debate it or leave.
“When you have a chief executive who says: ‘I don’t accept the rule of the government of the day and I am just not accepting it’, then you can’t tolerate that. You can have a debate around it but to just [drop] anchor and go ‘I am not moving’ is just not on. If you feel that strongly you should leave in my opinion. You should say, ‘I can’t tolerate this so I’ll do something else’.”
But who is going to persuade Sir Humphrey to leave or take early retirement?
When, as prime minister, David Cameron said,
“I believe the creation of the Government Digital Service is one of the great unsung triumphs of the last Parliament.”
he was speaking as a politician who has a temporary job. On the other hand, bureaucratic resistance to change – the Whitehall culture – will last forever unless intervention is deep, effective and continual. That type of intervention cannot be expected of any short-term minister, not even a prime minister.
The hope now is that GDS’s influence within departments and agencies has been far-reaching enough to encourage thousands of younger civil servants to try and effect change themselves – make the running of government simpler and much cheaper – at least for the sake of taxpayers.
As Maude says,
“You need people who are passionate about it (genuine transformation); and who don’t mind pissing people off frankly – don’t mind annoying people and upsetting the system.”
Sir Humphrey will oppose any change that diminishes his power base – but could his innate defence of old traditions be drowned out by an overwhelming chorus of reasoned sensibleness from thousands of GDS advocates?
Even when Sir Humphrey eventually retires and is replaced by another old crock (an arch defender of the status quo), some of GDS’s work will endure. Bracken said in his Centre for Public Impact interview last month,
“Where I am hugely optimistic is that we left a way of working that will not revert. When we got there [GDS], there were pockets of people all over government who would struggle for years to do good digital stuff… they would be blocked at every turn and were absolutely fed up.
“What we did was give them validity; you can do it this way. Now there is a manual. There are guides; there are networks; there are communities. Treasury’s rules are published rules on how you do technology services and we wrote them.
“People saw us as insurgent, incoming rule-breakers. That’s how the old guard of the civil service would present itself. It’s hugely disrespectful because we put a great degree of intellectual thought into writing the new rules… Those Treasury rules on how you fund and build an agile technology service is the new norm.
“That’s not going to get changed anytime soon. In that system now there are, I suspect, 10,000 to 15,000 people probably under 40 who are all committed to working in an agile, open way.
“The point about working that way is you can’t go back. [If someone suggests] spending a year writing some requirements down and then outsourcing that to a third party, they are never going to do that. And they are the leaders of the future.
” I am not quite sure of the bumps along the road, the trajectories. It may wax and wane for a bit, but committed public servants will be working this way for the rest of their career. That will be our legacy.”
Thank you to Derek Du Preez whose Diginomica article prompted this post.