Exclusive - GDS to lose control of Data Policy, being handed to DCMS

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez February 2, 2018
Although unconfirmed, the news that Data Policy and Governance is being taken out of GDS will spark concerns that the department is being dismantled.

The Government Digital Service

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is set to lose control of Data Policy and Governance, which will be handed over to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) from the 1st of April 2018, according to sources.

Employees at GDS affected by the move have been informed, although it is not clear whether or not they will be moving across to DCMS as a result of the change.

The announcement was made on the Cabinet Office’s intranet. Diginomica/government asked the Cabinet Office for comment, and after waiting close to 48 hours for confirmation, received the following response from a spokesperson:

The Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have been looking at how to bring together and further strengthen their work on the use and management of data across government. An announcement will follow in due course.

Shifting Data Policy and Governance out of GDS will spark concerns that the department is being dismantled and that DCMS is looking to take control of digital delivery.

Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Matt Hancock, has previously held the position of Cabinet Office Minister and headed up GDS for a short while, before moving over to DCMS in July 2016.

Diginomica/government has been made aware of previous failed attempts by Hancock and allies to move GDS and central digital delivery functions out of the Cabinet Office and under the control of DCMS.

Equally, we have also been made aware of a power struggle between the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) and GDS over the Digital Marketplace. If GDS loses control of the Digital Marketplace, G-Cloud and data policy, its remit will have significantly diminished.

It is unclear why Data Policy and Governance is being taken away from the Cabinet Office, but DCMS does lead some data policy, on topics such as open data, AI and data ethics. However, DCMS doesn’t have a strong track record in delivery and is perceived in Whitehall very much as a ‘policy department’.

Equally, data is central to a lot of what GDS and the Cabinet Office is attempting to do in terms of the Transformation Strategy. As we know, data underpins everything and GDS has been attempting to clean up Whitehall’s data mess, by creating canonical lists of data (registers) and advocating better data sharing between departments.

If data policy is taken away from GDS, this may undermine much of what it is attempting to do as it relates to Government-as-a-Platform and broader technology transformation plans. Data is a central piece of the puzzle and losing control of it could make GDS’ job of delivery significantly harder.

There have been warnings in recent months from those working in government, and from leading figures, such as Baroness Lane Fox of Soho, that the ‘old guard’ is working to slowly dismantle GDS. Lord Francis Maude, who held the position of Cabinet Office Minister during the creation of GDS, has also warned that it needs to remain a central function in order to drive change.

This news will likely spark concern that there is a power grab at play from DCMS and that GDS’ future looks uncertain.

My take

This is all we know at the moment, but I have strong concerns about data policy being taken away from GDS. What’s the point of being in charge of digital transformation in government if you don’t also control the data element? Bizarre. Equally, DCMS has no significant track record on delivery. It’s a policy department. This stinks of political game playing, rather than a thought out strategy.

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