Minister in charge of GDS – ‘Changing government can be like turning an oil tanker’

SUMMARY:

Caroline Nokes MP was given responsibility for GDS and digital government in the wake of the snap election and is beginning to make public appearances.

Caroline Nokes with Kevin Cunnington, vistiting GDS

It’s been a disruptive year or two for digital government and the political leadership of the Government Digital Service (GDS). Following a number of Ministerial changes, brought about by a snap election and cabinet reshuffles, Caroline Nokes MP was given the responsibility of heading up the transformation agenda in June this year.

She takes over the position from Ben Gummer, who took over the position from Matthew Hancock, who took over from Francis Maude (all in the space of a couple of years). But it was Maude that was seen as a political force during his tenure and has been highly praised for his work with GDS – but has equally left big shoes to fill, with his successors struggling to live up to his work.

Combine this with a significant amount of leadership disruption within GDS in recent years, again with a number of chiefs taking the top seat within a few short months, and the digital agenda has been brought into question.

Whilst plenty of progress has been made, observers are concerned that this has slowed, which has been coupled with some high-profile fractions between the central function and other departments (and some struggling projects to follow suit).

As a result, Nokes has some big shoes to fill and some tough questions to answer as it relates to the progress of the Transformation Strategy and what GDS has planned for the future. In one of her first public speeches on digital today at an Institute for Government event, did she rise to the occasion?

On first impressions – both yes and no. Whilst Nokes comes across as far more competent than the likes of Hancock (who often shied away from public questions and didn’t seem to have the knowledge to back up his bold claims), Nokes’ core speech still seemed to reiterate GDS’ core achievements over the past few years – offering very little in the way of new guidance or material.

Having listened to the speech, I felt like anyone who has been following GDS over recent years could have written it, with many of the core themes being repeated e.g. Verify, platforms, rethinking data, skills, etc. Not much new to get our teeth into.

Right at the end of the speech, we got some slithers of what could potentially be interesting new projects for the department and the digital agenda. Nokes said:

By 2020 we will have delivered 89 digital services, including a new digital mortgage service and an online divorce service. Anyone who has been through the hideousness of either of those two processes, will know that they need to improve. They’re designed to improve the interaction between government and the people it serves.

I spoke earlier about how government has been playing catch up. Now I’m going to tell you about three things to ensure that government doesn’t have to play catch up again.

Firstly, when we launched GOV.UK, it was all about the website. It was all about consolidating and simplifying content. Our work today is about structuring services and information on GOV.UK to ensure that government’s content can be accessed and reused by any technology, such as voice assist, like Siri and Alexa. This work is vital. It means that people can always find and use government services, however they choose to access them. It means reducing mistakes. And it means saving the taxpayer money.

Secondly, we are continuing to learn from the best that the private sector has to offer. The banking industry, for example, is using sandboxes that allow businesses to test innovative products, services, business models and delivery mechanisms in the real market, with real consumers. We are thinking about how they could be applied to government. And we are now taking steps to formalise how we handle innovation and approach new technologies.

Thirdly, our prosperity depends on our ability to secure, data and networks. Cyber attacks are growing more frequent, more sophisticated and more damaging when they succeed. So we are taking action to protect both our economy and the privacy of UK citizens.

The positives

However, despite the lack of new content coming from Nokes’ speech, I still felt vaguely positive about her appointment, as a first impression. As noted above, she came across as competent for a first appearance – taking half an hour of questions from the chair and the audience afterwards, on a wide range of topics. Her answers were a bit hit and miss – sometimes lacking the technical depth and the ferocity that I would hope for – but it needs to be remembered that she is less than six months into the job and digital government is an unwieldy beast.

Nokes also had high praise for he predecessor Francis Maude, but indicated that she would be taking a less adversarial approach. She said:

I have a phenomenal amount of time for Francis. When I was first a Conservative Party candidate, way back in 2002, I can remember Francis being very kind and helpful, and proffering some fantastic advice at what was one of the most challenging times in my life. I have a massive amount of time for Francis and a huge amount of respect for what he did back in 2010 when we came into government in the coalition.

I don’t think anyone would veer away from saying that Francis had a vision, where GDS was set up to be a disrupter. [But] I think it has broadly come of age and fair to say that you have to have a system that will work with government.

The conference chair, Institute for Government’s Daniel Thornton, asked about GDS’ role at the centre of government. There has been an ongoing debate that GDS has been too controlling and isolating at the centre, taking on too much build work, and instead should adopt a role of setting standards, consulting, collaborating and guiding departments. Less stick, more carrot, as it were.

Nokes said that GDS’ job is to coordinate, but that she is keen for it to have a strong role in the UK’s exit from the EU. She said:

I think at the centre we have a hugely coordinating role. I’m very conscious that GDS works with all different government departments. I think it’s fair to say, some more than others. I think that it’s also fair to say that at the current time, we have some departments that are under more pressure than others, some facing greater challenges.

My focus is very much on making sure that GDS has the ability to work specifically with the Department for Exiting the EU to make sure that they have the tools that they need to deliver as smooth a transition as possible. Not that I pretend that that’s easy.”

I think the standards that underpin all of our work are absolutely crucial. I quite like the phrase lego government. I think that too often, government is far too siloed. And departments can, not always, but can, have a tendency to think about themselves first and not be more collaborative with their near neighbouring departments. Absolutely, a crucial part of this is making sure that we bring departments on board with our digital agenda.

Speed of change

Nokes added that during her time at the Department for Work and Pensions, she worked with a wide array of civil servants, many of whom were on the front line. She said that she has a “huge amount of respect” for civil servants and added that she can “put [her] hand on [her] heart and say [she’s] never found one who is in any way obstructive”. Not sure I believe that, but a nice sentiment.

However, despite the niceties, Nokes does want change to happen more quickly. She added:

I think, to be brutally candid, I want to see the process of change faster. But government is big and it has a tendency to be slow. This is on occasion like trying to turn around the proverbial oil tanker. I think from the the centre and from the top show direction of travel, show determination. Sporadically as a Minister you have to slam your hand on your desk and say “just do it”.

And speaking of the future of digital government, Nokes wasn’t willing to make any firm commitments, but did show firm commitment to the agenda. She said:

Where will this end? I don’t have a crystal ball. It would be really handy if I did. I’m never ashamed of this, I’m a Tory. So I do believe in small government. But I also believe in government doing stuff better. I think what digital gives us is the opportunity to be a hell of a lot smarter about the way we operate, about the way we interact with our citizens, about the service we provide them, its speed, its competence.

My take

If Nokes can build up her depth of knowledge and make the necessary political stands to ensure change happens – as well as use GDS to help guide the UK out of the EU, she stands a good chance of leaving a legacy here. It’s not easy, however, her predecessors have struggled. That being said, I felt more positive about her responses on her first outing than what I heard from Gummer or Hancock during their entire tenure.

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