The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and well known digital chiefs at the top of the department, have made a power grab to take control of the Government Digital Service (GDS), claiming that it isn’t performing or delivering as it should within the Cabinet Office, at the centre of government.
Matthew Gould, director general for digital media and policy at DCMS, Matthew Hancock, Secretary of State for DCMS, and Liam Maxwell, the government’s national technology adviser, are the ones making a play for GDS functions to move out of the Cabinet Office and under DCMS’ control.
Hancock has previously served as Cabinet Office Minister and Liam Maxwell was previously the government’s CTO within the Cabinet Office - and so both have worked closely with GDS in the past.
Diginomica/government understands that in the past couple of weeks there have been heated discussions at the very top of the civil service.
According to sources, John Manzoni, Permanent Secretary for the Cabinet Office and Civil Service CEO, told Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, that if DCMS takes control of GDS, his job is being undermined.
Apparently those within DCMS have argued that GDS is not performing against its public commitments - and questions are being asked about what exactly it is doing with its £450 million budget.
Sources claimed that Manzoni went as far as to threaten his resignation over the move, but this is unconfirmed.
Diginomica/government reported this morning that Data Policy and Government would be moving out of GDS and into DCMS as of 1st April 2018. Sources now claim that other elements, such as Verify and GOV.UK are also being considered as options to take across, given that they play a wider role in the ‘digital economy’, for which DCMS is responsible.
Manzoni allegedly argued that any such move would break up the functional model that he has been working to put in place. Taking key functions out of GDS would undermine the strategy and Manzoni has argued, according to sources, that if this was carried out he effectively cannot do the job that he was brought in to do - and will undermine the commitments that he has made in public speeches.
However, allegedly an agreement was made that DCMS would take control over any functions that are seen as ‘execution’, but policy and standards would remain at the centre under GDS control within the Cabinet Office.
Policy and standards essentially give GDS authority and control across government for what delivery takes place. And remember, the Cabinet Office is the only department to have devolved spend controls from the Treasury.
The power play is being compounded by the perception that GDS chief, Kevin Cunnington, has little interest in delivery, and is only concerned with the civil service profession and setting standards, giving those within DCMS ammunition.
And to add to all of this, the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) is allegedly making a power grab for the Digital Marketplace and the G-Cloud to move out of GDS - which begs the question, what will be left?
This is all very worrying. For a number of reasons. Wind back a few years and GDS was seen as a force to be reckoned with within Whitehall, a department with innovative ideas and the gusto to get things done. Fast forward to today and it’s being perceived as a lame duck that is underperforming to the point where people think it might do better under the control of DCMS - a department with no track record of delivery. That’s not my perception, but it’s a growing view in Whitehall.
There are good people at DCMS, but I don’t believe that breaking up GDS’ functions and moving them into another department is the answer. For one thing, it’s hard enough as it is to get Whitehall to change with a force at the centre, let alone if it becomes fragmented. DCMS has no central authority over other departments.
It’s interesting that Manzoni is the one fighting GDS’ corner here, given that we’ve accused him in the past over many of the problems that now underpin GDS’ current situation. For example, the leadership changes within the department were reported as his doing. Cunnington doesn’t appear to have the ambition or authority to get what’s needed done.
It seems that Manzoni has won the initial battle, to some extent, but this will inevitably be seen as the starting point of the slow dismantling of GDS. Taking away certain functions will undermine its ability and that will only give those wanting to change its position more ammunition.