GDS Director on impact of digital - ‘Parts of Whitehall will no longer exist by 2030’

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez May 9, 2016
Government Digital Service (GDS) Director Stephen Foreshew-Cain has given his view on what government will look like in 14 years time.

Stephen Foreshew-Cain
What will the British government look like in 2030? That’s the main topic of conversation today at TechUK’s PS2030 event in London, where Government Digital Service (GDS) director Stephen Foreshew-Cain took to the stage to describe his vision for how public sector services will change over the next fourteen years.

Whilst Foreshew-Cain was hesitant to be too adamant about the potential transformation (“I have no magic powers to see into the future”), he did hint at how dramatic the impact of digital could be.

Most notably he spoke about the need for policy making to be more tightly integrated with service design and testing, and how as a result of this, many of the institutions we currently see in Whitehall could no longer exist in the not too distant future.

Foreshew-Cain said:

There must be new ways of experiencing government because of [how digital has changed the way we experience services]. When I think about government in 2030, I don’t think about what it will passively become, but what we choose to make it.

GDS’s role in this, alongside the departments it supports, is to define standards, build components, organise data and skill-up Whitehall to allow for the easier creation of digital services that better service citizens.

The broader strategy for this falls under GDS’s Government-as-a-Platform approach, which we have written about extensively, and has seen the creation of such ‘components’ as Verify, Notify and Pay.

If we assume that Government-as-a-Platform is the correct approach for the moment, Foreshew-Cain’s vision for 2030 radically rethinks how government delivers public sector services to citizens.

Instead of policy makers coming up with wild ideas, which are theoretical in approach and tested via consultation with a select few, and have multi-year pipelines; policy will be closely linked to service delivery, where services are created, tested and even destroyed at negligible cost through the use of ‘platforms’.

As a result, it’s easy to see why this creates problems for the current silos and structures of Whitehall, let alone the hierarchical roles that sit within those institutions. And therefore, Foreshew-Cain is anticipating a complete rethink of the entire role of government. He said:

The last major revolution in the Civil Service was its creation in the 19th century. The changes were important, they were fundamental, they were critical to the civil service we have today. But they were also 160 years ago and no longer fit for the circumstance of present time, let alone what’s coming in the next 15 years.”

[January 1st 2030] is just under 5,000 days away. There are only two more planned general elections. The biggest challenge isn’t going to be the change itself, but that everything will change. At an accelerating pace. We know it will happen, we know it is unavoidable. It will happen whether government wants it to or not.

What matters is how dynamic and how responsive it is to that change.

The future

Foreshew-Cain began by explaining that by 2030 he hopes that government will have embedded the current strategy of delivery to the point where those in government no longer think about having to ‘do digital’ - it will just be the way things are done. And this doesn’t mean digital as a separate function necessarily, it means digital as part of all jobs across Whitehall. He said:

A formal strategy document will happen in due course, but a strategy document doesn’t matter as much as working code. I would like to see a lot of these foundations ready by 2020.

By 2030 we will have fixed the basics - it’s the stuff we have been talking about for a long time, putting users first will be the default in government, as will working in agile adaptive ways. Those things will be the new normal for the civil service. To the point where we don’t have to think about it anymore.

By 2030, digital won’t be a thing anymore. Because everything will be digital. I’m not talking about a mythical future. To do those things we will have to be employing people that understand the internet, users and a networked world.

I’m talking policy professionals, commercial professionals, legal professionals, operational professionals. Everyone has to get it. The best way to do that is for the civil service to reflect the diversity of the world we live in. Between now and then we have to get better at hiring the right people, and more importantly getting people to stay. We have to get better at training the people we already have.

Skills has been a sticking point for digital delivery in Whitehall. The lack of understanding of digital, combined with a competitive market for those digital skills, has meant that ambitions aren’t always being realised. This is being addressed and is high on Foreshew-Cain’s agenda, but there is still a long way to go before the Civil Service can call itself a digital institution.

Policy = service delivery

Foreshew-Cain’s vision centred around the idea that policy making needs to be closely linked and tightly

gds government
integrated to service design and delivery. This vision is currently very far from the situation as it currently stands. But he said:

Policy making will be service design - I will know I’m in 2030 when I see this happening. The designing of services will be the making of policy. Ideas and the implementation will be so close together. There will be no new ideas that don’t have implementation factored into their thinking.”

The way the law is made will have to change too, by 2030 we will be working with legislation that actively supports service delivery. White papers will be replaced by public prototypes, which means that public consultation will itself have to change. You have to be a pretty engaged citizen to wade through consultation documents. I’m aware that I’m not consulting with integrity. In 2030 we will have smaller, more rapid, more frequent consultation with citizens. The old style of top-down, predictive, assumes a conclusion, doesn’t assume service delivery - that’s just not going to cut it.

If we get that right, disposable services will happen. Imagine trying to create a new service and you can do that in hours, not in months. Create two different versions of the same service and then through public consultation determine which one works better or best. And then having done the research and having iterated and improved on the better one, simply killing off the one that didn’t work. Imagine being able to do that at negligible cost.

Everything will be made using an interconnected network of digital components, built to agreed standards that can work for everyone across government.

And what does that mean for the government structures that we currently have today? Well, according to Foreshew-Cain, they will be looking rather different to what they do now.

And in 15 years from now, the work we have already done today, will have a far reaching affect. We as government will have learnt how to quickly adapt to however citizens want to access our government services.

All of that has a consequence for the shape of government. In order to achieve it, government will have to be simpler, it will have to be smaller, faster, and way more agile. It will have to be a more flexible and adaptable organisation by design, one that doesn’t fear technical innovation or technological change, but really embraces it. The result will be that services shape government, not the other way around.

We won’t start with the preposition that I have a department that is X, how does it deliver this service? We will start with the question that is, what are the services that I need to provide? And what shape of an organisation should I be to do that? So I believe that by 2030 the organisational structure of government departments and agents will be much simpler, and I hope radically different.

I believe that there are some parts of Whitehall that exist today will no longer exist. The departmental silos that I think all of us have become aware of and constrained by, I think they will just fade away. There will be smaller administrative centres and a new culture that is based on evidence based decision making.

My take

This gets to the crux of what I’ve been saying for a while, and is a topic that GDS has avoided up until recently - because of the political implications. Rethinking the role of government and the institutions that support that role is going to invoke a passioned response from all sections of Whitehall.

The examples of Airbnb and Uber were banded about (as per usual) at the TechUK event, citing their ability to have few staff, few assets, and yet deliver a superb customer experience. If that’s the aim for the public sector, then we are talking about slimming down government to a degree that we have never seen before.

Think about it this way - if we were to start again and design our government from the ground up, would it look how it looks now? I very much doubt it.

That doesn’t mean that this is necessarily bad, but we shouldn’t shy away from the fact that digital has the potential to strip back the institutions we know today and equally provide a far better experience for citizens.

It’s important to note that one of the core challenges with this is not the technology, but that a lot of people working in the Civil Service at the moment have a vested interest in this not happening. Or maybe a better way of saying it, is that plenty of those working in Whitehall won’t recognise that they need to adapt and will fiercely protect the roles and institutions that they understand.

I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s an issue that shouldn’t be shied away from.