It had been reported that a government-as-a-platform business case had been denied funding, which led to the Government Digital Service's director Mike Bracken stepping down last month. We spoke to people close to the matter at the time that suggested that the Treasury and Number 10 didn't back the idea of a platform-based government.
I've written pretty extensively about what government-as-a-platform might look like, according the Government Digital Service's vision. To summarise it essentially involves the reorganisation of the government's data so that departments could more easily use and reuse commodity products (procured via GDS) to build agile digital services. Read this for a deeper analysis of the implications.
According to a freedom of information request submitted by diginomica shortly after Bracken's departure, the Treasury is actually in favour of the idea. Unfortunately, despite asking for details, the scope of the business case could not be provided due to “commercial interests”. The FOI response states:
Government Digital Service did submit a business case to Treasury for Government-as-a-Platform (GaaP) as part of the Summer Budget. I can also confirm that the business case was supported by HM Treasury. We consider that information regarding the scope and amount requested to fund this engages the exemption in section 43(2) of the FOI Act (commercial interests).
Section 43 is a qualified exemption and we are required to balance public interest in disclosure and non-disclosure. In this case we recognise that there is a public interest in transparency in accountability of public funds and of a public understanding of government IT initiatives. There is also a public interest in knowing that the Government is achieving value for money.
However, there is also a strong case for non-disclosure, as we consider that release is likely to prejudice the commercial interests of HM Treasury. If we were to release the details of this business case, it is likely to have a negative impact on current ongoing work on GaaP, in that it will weaken any competitive procurement competitions that may arise as part of GaaP. We also consider that releasing the information could undermine the negotiating position of the Department in any future negotiations on contracts of this type.
It's disappointing that the Treasury has chosen not to provide any further information aboutthe scope. Saying it supports the business case is one thing, but the level of funding it approved is another matter. Sources at the time of Bracken's departure were adamant that he was leaving because of a lack of backing from the Treasury and civil service chief executive John Manzoni – which I'm inclined to believe.
There has also been a mass exodus of senior staff within the Government Digital Service since Bracken announced he was leaving, which suggests that many people close to him felt the same way.
Bracken's exit has also caused great concern that the government's efforts to fix the problems of the past, which saw IT projects fail time and time again, could be derailed. And that the lack of support for his vision is indicative of a culture within Whitehall that is unwilling to change its process and structures for what could be modern, digital governance.
It has also been noted that there is a great deal of irony in the fact that a number of other countries, including the US and Australia, are now following in the UK's footsteps and are citing Britain as an innovator in digital government - just as we appear to be doubting ourselves.
However, news that the Treasury actually supports a business case for government-as-a-platform will be somewhat heartening to those continuing to strive for a digital overhaul in Whitehall.
But one word of warning – the fact that the Treasury has declined to detail how much support it offered to the Government Digital Service over government-as-a-platform business case should ring some alarm bells. It could be that it is in fact commercially sensitive, as the freedom of information request response suggests. However, it could also be that the Treasury doesn't want to give away how little support it provided.
Having said that, if the Treasury the commercially sensitive claim also implies that there is somewhat a significant investment in the idea. Mentioning “current ongoing work” and “competitive procurement competitions” suggest action being taken. If that is indeed true, wewelcome the news.
Unfortunately, we are unlikely to understand much more until the Chancellor has completed his current spending review. Will George Osborne by into a complete restructure of government as we understand it? I'm not so sure. As someone close to the situation recently said to me, it's going to be a “a few steps back, before we can move forward”.
However, having said that, we understand that the recent coverage of Bracken's exit and the subsequent fallout has put pressure on Manzoni to pursue government-as-a-platform more aggressively. The coming months will be very telling.