If you have followed the progression of the Government Digital Service (GDS) since its creation in 2011, you will know all about the role of then Cabinet Office Minister, Lord Francis Maude.
Maude was considered a political force to be reckoned with during his five year tenure at the Cabinet Office, up until 2015, where he managed to drive an incredible amount of change through Whitehall, where others have typically failed.
With the then coalition government’s efficiency agenda in full force, Maude had the backing to implement some hard-lined central controls that were not only aimed at creating savings, but also changing the way that central government delivered services – with digital in mind.
Maude (and others) saw lengthy outsourcing contracts that were failing. He saw departments that were lacking in capability and making nonsensical technology purchasing decisions. He saw the grip that the big SIs had on departments, which were rinsing the taxpayer for all they could get. He saw the lack of interoperability around cross-government interaction, and the lack of transparency in Whitehall data.
And as a result, a new central capability, the now well-known Government Digital Service, was created to go and rock the boat and show others the art of what was possible.
Anyone following this story closely will know the outcome. GDS has grown significantly in size and power. Government departments are thinking differently about digital and about how they deliver citizen services. There is an ambition to wind down the lengthy and costly outsourcing agreements. Procurement has been improved via the Digital Marketplace. Digital capability is being hired into Whitehall. And Britain was recently ranked by the UN as the number one government for e-government.
People have different opinions about GDS, but I don’t really think it can be argued that things are now significantly better than they were.
That being said, over the past year or two Maude’s original agenda has been altered somewhat by the new powers that be. There is a general consensus that too much power at the centre is fractious, rather than helpful, with more emphasis being placed on departmental-level capability. There is a softening of approach towards the larger technology suppliers. And there is generally more carrot than stick under the new regime.
Given the difference in approach, I was keen to catch up with Lord Maude to find out his take on the latest agenda. As a journalist you’re always hoping for some juice quotes, I’ll admit that, but I also wanted to get an understanding from someone with a proven track record on driving successful change in government about whether the latest approach to transformation will work (or not).
Interestingly, when I met with Maude yesterday in an office in Sanctuary House in Westminster, the interview didn’t get off to the start I’d hoped or expected. Maude was reluctant to talk about the Government Digital Service in its current form at all. He started by saying:
I haven’t seen the Transformation Strategy. I’m very unlikely to want to comment on anything they are doing at the moment, because I’m not very keen on it, and it’s unattractive for previous incumbents to snipe at what they’re doing now.
That is admirable, but not quite what I’d hoped for. And a bit nerve wracking, I must admit, as I didn’t want to talk about anything but the Government Digital Service and it’s current approach. But Maude, being generous, agreed to talk about what he thought did work during his time at the Cabinet Office and why he thought it was successful.
Ultimately, whilst Lord Maude wasn’t willing to talk explicitly, it’s what he didn’t say that spoke volumes. He spoke about what he thinks works in digital government – and it’s up to us to decide what to take from that. So, in my 20 minutes with Lord Maude, this is what he said about what works for digital transformation.
Maude’s time at the Cabinet Office was defined by a number of strict central controls that other departments were asked to adhere to. For example, no contract was meant to be over £100 million for its lifetime value, no hosting contract was meant to be longer than two years, etc.
In my discussion with Lord Maude, he believes that central controls are important. He said:
The key thing was the existence of central controls. We put in place these controls within days of the coalition government being formed in 2010. And these were absolutely essential to stop the wrong things happening. There was only one way of doing things in government, which was you hired consultants to draw up a massive procurement programme. The procurement process lasted years, with metronome regularity. And they’d come back with results that were very expensive, delayed, obsolete by the time they arrived and needed massive amounts of changes that made them even more expensive.
So doing things differently was a real big challenge. But first of all we needed to stop the wrong things happening. When I talk to other people now in other countries they all nod vigorously and say ‘of course this has to happen’.
For all of these functions, which are cross government functions, you have to have a strong central authority and a strong central capability. This is totally alien to the historic culture of the British government.
When we had a study done of functional leadership, which is not just IT and digital, but procurement, commercial, property, HR, you name it, we were easily among comparable countries the least centralised. That just didn’t make any sense. What you should expect line departments to do is their core business, which is not running the IT. The idea that you’re going to have that degree of specialised capability in every department is simply insane.
Take from that what you will.
Maude went on to say that a government shouldn’t expect all of the capability to be at the centre, but it should expect the centre to have the authority to lay down some rules about how things are done. For example, he said that the key for digital and IT is introducing open standards and interoperability – something that has been a long-standing mantra of GDS.
He added that if you ignore open standards and interoperability, everyone quickly “goes off and does their own thing, not very well”.
In the space of five years, we saved over £50 billion for the British taxpayer. No one has done that anywhere else. And every government needs to do it. So there has been a lot of interest.
What’s interesting is how many governments have taken the example of GDS and are seeking to replicate it. [For example], the US Digital Service, 18F, which the Trump administration I gather is looking to retain, but is also looking to strengthen as a central authority.
The thing thing that hampered it was its ability to stop things happening, the lack of central controls, such as we had. Doing the way that we have done things is what got Britain to the top of the UN’s world rankings for digital government. And its significant, surely, that other governments have picked that up and decided to replicate it.
Thinking differently about government
I was also interested to discuss with Maude the idea that if governments were now designed from the ground up, with the technology we have today, that the institutions would look completely different to the way they do currently.
Part of the problem with departments building their own digital capability and working independently is, you’ve got to ask yourself, is that what we actually want government to look like? The other important question is: is it even possible to change the institutions we have, given the amount of legacy in place (technology, people, culture, legal and historical)?
When I put this to Lord Maude, he agreed, and said that Whitehall would absolutely not look how it does today if it could be designed again. He explained:
Within central government there’s absolutely no way you would create these huge, free standing departments with their own kind of life. If you were starting again with the technology that’s available now, you wouldn’t have separate departments.
You would have ministers with strong offices, able to draw on a common pool of advice, you’d have deep pools of expertise, but you would not want everything siloed in the way it is now. You’d have a single technology platform across government. You would have the single canonical data registries underpinning them, instead of every department having its own databases – often conflicting, overlapping and with very poor quality data. You would do everything differently.
And unsurprisingly, Maude pointed to the data silos (and the power that they are perceived to hold) as a key problem for unlocking transformation across Whitehall. The government’s data strategy has been lacking in recent months, and yet it underpins much of the transformation plans – in particular the Government-as-a-Platform agenda. Maude said:
Departments guard their databases incredibly carefully. The number of times we wanted to share data instantaneously, for things like pursuing fraud and error, and we were told it wasn’t legally permitted. The most commonly words heard in my office were ‘show me the chapter and verse’.
And someone would come back shuffling their feet a bit later saying that they thought they weren’t allowed, but actually they are. Getting the data out of the hands of departments, which guard it as the source of their power and influence, is an essential thing to do. But we are a million miles away from that.
Maude was an exciting figure to watch operate, at a time when we felt like change was accelerating across Whitehall. He had the political prowess to navigate the tangled web of Whitehall, which others have arguably since failed to master.
He’s a canny man. He saw what needed to be done and knew how to get there. Whether you agree with everything GDS has done or not, it can’t really be argued that we owe a lot to Lord Maude for the positive changes that are in place.
And whilst I didn’t get the juicy or scathing quotes I was hoping for (ones he used to be so excellent at delivering during his time at the Cabinet Office), there’s a lot to be said in what Francis Maude didn’t say during our 20 minutes together. As he said to me, take from this what you will.
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