Digital government transformation - Day One of LAB (Life After Bracken)

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan September 27, 2015
The Government Digital Service team come into work today without its most public face, Mike Bracken, in situ and a continuing lack of public clarity about the shape of things to come for UK digital government.

mike bracken
Life after Bracken

Today is day one of LAB for the Government Digital Service. That’s Life After Bracken.

Friday of last week was the final day at work for the man who, while never failing to acknowledge the team effort that makes GDS work, had become the public face of the digital transformation of the UK government.

But back in August, Bracken took the public sector by surprise by announcing his departure from his role as GDS Director, later confirming a new role as Chief Digital Officer for the Co-operative Group.

His departure prompted questions, most still unanswered, about the future of GDS, with Whitehall scuttlebutt suggesting that a lack of support within government for the centralised mandate of GDS was a trigger factor in Bracken’s decision.

While former Cabinet Officer Minister Francis Maude had been a highly public supporter of GDS, rumors circulated, largely unchecked, that the new regime was less overtly keen on the roadmap for the operation.

Since then, there have been voices raised in support of GDS as a basic concept, but in terms that are strikingly short on detail. For example, Prime Minister David Cameron, said earlier this month in a wide-ranging speech on reform:

I believe the creation of the Government Digital Service is one of the great unsung triumphs of the last Parliament.

A whole series of things that used to involve complicated paperwork can now be done online, from registering to vote and paying your taxes to the work being done here in this building to help make the benefits system digital.

Part of the issue is our mentality. When a business uses technology to deliver more for less, it’s regarded as a good thing. But when government does it, it’s too often just badged as cuts. It’s as though good business is somehow bad government. This attitude has to change.

By focusing on these core principles – of reform, devolution and efficiency – we can deliver better, more progressive government that will meet the challenge of living within our means and at the same time help us to extend opportunity to all.

That’s a pretty concise summary of the underlying principles behind GDS, but while the remarks were seized upon by observers as evidence of the highest-possible support for the service, in reality Cameron’s words are little more than a mission-statement summary that could have been delivered at any time over the past five years.

Where to?

If we accept that ministers and officials believe that in general GDS is a good thing, then the real question now is how that will be delivered over the course of the current political term and here there’s a staggering lack of detail. That’s likely to remain the case until after the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Spending Review in November.

But did we get some clues as to the shape of things to come last week from two separate high-level sources, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood and Andy Beale, the deputy director of government technology.

Heywood was making a rare public appearance at an event hosted by the Institute of Government, during which he declared that GDS has moved into what he called “a different phase”.

Interestingly Heywood didn’t deny that there had been disagreement over the future direction of the service, stating only that:

I think that talk of an argument is really overstated to be honest.

Of Bracken’s departure, he added:

Mike’s great skill was as an insurgent in a way. And he’s done a brilliant job creating a group of people, creating a brilliant brand which has been able to attract real talent from across the world. But he was ready for a new challenge and I think we’re ready to move GDS onto a different phase in its own work.

The Cabinet Secretary said that the new vision is based around having:

excellent heads of digital in all of the key departments.

And he confirmed that this means a reduction in GDS’s centralised mandate, insisting:

You can’t run the whole of digital — HMRC’s digital strategy — from the Cabinet Office. It’s a vast organisation. The same with DWP. And IT and digital is a core part of its mission.

So no permanent secretary could be in charge of those departments unless they’ve got a real grip on the digital agenda of their own department. It’s so core to their mission. And they are basically IT businesses.

So Mike, quite rightly, has seen it as one of his key jobs to build capacity in each of the departments and make sure we’ve got a clear whole of government strategy. And then we’ve got capability within each department to drive that through. That’s exactly the phase we’re now moving to.

Meanwhile at the Government ICT 2.0 conference, Andy Beale, the deputy director of government technology, also talked of what he called a “different mode” for GDS and once again it’s about federating responsibility from the center to the departments:

[Cabinet Office Minister] Matt Hancock has made it clear. He talked very much about working together, both the way the center works with departments, and the centre works with itself.

The center's role, GDS's role, is to get behind [departments] – we need to offer tooling, offer support, continue to offer a route to skills. We are going to be turning the volume down in the center... but we wouldn't be where we are without a strong and active center.

GDS will be expected to focus on three things, he added. These are:

  • Digital transformation, under Bracken’s successor Stephen Foreshew-Cain.
  • Technology strategy, under Chief Technology Officer Liam Maxwell.
  • Data, under a yet-to-be-named Chief Data Officer. (Intriguingly a new role of Director of Data at GDS has been created and filled by former Cabinet Office director of open data Paul Maltby. but this is not a re-invention of the CDO role previously held by Bracken.)

The challenge of this federated approach will of course be collaboration and co-operation between departments. If not managed and co-ordinated, there will be a real risk of ending up with silos of tech and digital transformation rather than the Government as a Platform approach that seems on the face of it to demand centralised leadership and mandate.

Bracken himself previously admitted to Computer Weekly that there are potential problems here, noting:

We need to work differently and more collaboratively in a system that is not set up to do that. Whitehall was described to me when I started as a warring band of tribal bureaucrats held together by a common pension scheme, and there is something in that.

My take

Public sector analyst house Kable recently came out with various options for the future of GDS. These included:

  • Being broken apart, with its responsibilities divided up between Whitehall departments and newly-created divisions.
  • GDS remains in some form but departments are given more sway over the direction of their IT strategies
  • GDS remains in charge, under head of the civil service, John Manzoni, but working within Treasury-set objectives.

The first and second options depend on there being digital skills and understanding at the very top of the administration of each department as well as lower down. While there has been a focus on recruitment of talent to that effect, there's a still a long way to go. We're certainly far from Heywood's requirement that:

no permanent secretary could be in charge of those departments unless they’ve got a real grip on the digital agenda.

The third option would almost certainly put paid to a centrally-driven GaaP strategy. Kable noted:

It seems more likely that the Treasury would approve a less politically risky GaaP strategy that looked to the departments to develop common services in a piecemeal fashion, rather than budgeting for GDS to manage and deliver a single high-profile centralised programme.

With the Spending Review looming, it’s still not a given that the necessary budget will be available. Back in August, Foreshew-Cain stated in a blog post:

Our focus is on gearing up for the Spending Review, and getting a settlement that will enable us to drive the government’s digital agenda forward.

Last week, Heywood would only state:

I hope we’ll get backing from the Treasury at the Spending Review — but that’s not a bid…we will all see if that happens.

In other words, we’re still in search of both answers and commitments.

And I'm still deeply worried about where we go from here.

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