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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”.

Dismembering

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.”

Comment

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”

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