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GDS Director says suppliers will be a component of Government-as-a-Platform

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez March 22, 2016
The executive director of the Government Digital Service (GDS), Stephen Foreshew-Cain, explains that the priority for government transformation is now collaboration.

Stephen Foreshew-Cain
GDS executive director, Stephen Foreshew-Cain

The executive director of the Government Digital Service (GDS), Stephen Foreshew-Cain, has said that private sector suppliers will form a component of the ever evolving Government-as-a-Platform.

Foreshew-Cain took to the stage at the Think Cloud for Digital Government conference in London this week, for which diginomica is the key media partner, to also say that more work needs to be done to attract, retain and promote digital roles in government.

He began by explaining that the priority over the last four years had been for GDS to show that there had been “decades of inaction and inertia in government” and that “piles of paper” weren’t going to make anything happen. GDS was about showing that by using the ‘strategy is delivery’ approach (i.e. making things happen now) - that change was possible in government and that change could be good. Foreshew-Cain said:

We showed colleagues in Whitehall and colleagues further afield what was actually possible within the environment within which we worked. As important as the doing was, so was the learning in that environment.

We learnt that 19th Century organisational models and 20th Century technologies were an incredible constraint and impediment to delivering 21st Century service demands.”

Trying to transform in our silos, one service at a time, was not going to be good enough. And even if it was good enough, it certainly wasn’t going to happen fast enough. Government needs to rethink how it works. What sorts of skills for the people that it employs it needs to make that happen?

The next stage

As we noted back in February at GDS’s annual Sprint event, Foreshew-Cain has adopted a more collaborative approach for the next stage of digital transformation across government. Under Bracken’s leadership, the idea appeared to be to create disruption in order to drive change. And that worked. But as a result, and is perhaps to be expected, this ended up isolating some departments and people and it has been perceived to not be the best long-term strategy. It was necessary, but a change was needed.

Foreshew-Cain is keen on saying at these presentations: “We’ve got your back”. Which gives you an idea about the change in tone.

The next stage for GDS and Whitehall digital transformation is about collaboration, according to Foreshew-Cain. He said:

The next four years is going to be about transforming government together. To really succeed, people need to come together and collaborate. We have been ruled by our silos in government for far too long. I’m not just talking about the organisational silos, and I’m not just talking about the legacy technology, but I’m talking about the silos that stopped us from sharing our knowledge and our experiences and coming together. It’s in the coming together that service transformation is really possible.

[We are] moving from an organisational focused strategy - I have an organisation, how do I make it do this? To a service strategy - I need to deliver these services, what sort of organisation do I need to be?

It’s not about departments having things done to them. It’s about doing things with one another. I think working together can get us to this: Government of the Internet.

Three key areas

Foreshew-Cain said that the government’s digital transformation, in particular GDS’s role, focused on the following three areas:

Standards and assurance - What does good look like? What can we all agree good looks like? GDS will provide standards and policies and the consistent support and guidance, so that services and technology can really work effectively and consistently. He said that GDS is “here to help government departments manage and use their collective knowledge together” and that he views the department’s role as the “curators of learning”. Foreshew-Cain said that the buck stops with GDS and that it is responsible for holding government to account.

Shared resources - GDS is building an “ecosystem of interconnected digital infrastructure components”, or Government-as-a-Platform. Foreshew-Cain said GDS will “make the lives of departments easier to deliver service transformation”, as they will be able to “use components to quickly assemble digital services that are affective and efficient in delivering to user needs. Build once, build well, use everywhere - that’s the agenda.

Guidance and capability - This is an area that Whitehall has struggled with, in terms of attracting and retaining the right skills to get the job done. Foreshew-Cain said that this is “probably the most important” priority for GDS and that transformation “requires a civil service that can develop and attract the talent and keep the people that have the skills” He admitted that this is not something that the civil service is naturally adept at. But he believes that GDS can help with this, by simplifying the recruitment processes, by making joining government easier, by reducing the friction of going through the civil service recruitment process, by creating more flexible career paths and by developing cross government reward and retention strategies. He said that GDS is “going to make government a place where people want to join and are motivated to stay”.

Foreshew-Cain was keen to note that this isn’t digital for digital’s sake, but is rather about doing the right thing for citizens. He said:

I don’t want anyone to misunderstand what we mean by digital. It’s not about tech. It’s not about IT. It’s not about change for change sake. It’s not just the new. It’s not just about shiny things for the sake of shiny things. It’s about doing the right things, one step at a time, as fast as we can.

Using the right tools in the right way, getting the right people, developing our people, so that they have the right skills to do the job we are asking of them. It’s about organisational change, forward thinking organisational change. People and culture. We are changing government itself and that’s hard. Really hard.


One of the most interesting points that Foreshew-Cain included in his presentation was about the government’s relationship with third party suppliers. GDS has come under criticism in recent months about building too much of its ‘stuff’, instead of sourcing it from a competitive market.

Foreshew-Cain denied that this was the agenda. He believes that whilst building is fine where it makes sense - and will be core to the Government-as-a-Platform strategy - so will engaging with suppliers and buying from the market. However, GDS wants to wok with suppliers that understand the importance of user need. He said:

If the unit of delivery is the team, and the Digital Marketplace is changing how we procure, then it feels to me that the next logical step is to treat suppliers as part of that team too. Government-as-a-Platform is if nothing else about building an interconnected network of components. Well, third party providers provide us with some of those components.

The Marketplace of suppliers is therefor itself a component of Government-as-a-Platform, so just as collaboration within government is a mutually beneficial two-way relationship, so too should collaboration and those organisations that provide services to us. That means we need suppliers that value what we value. We need suppliers that will believe what we believe.

However, he was also willing to admit that the government isn’t going to shy away from moving away from those lengthy, long overdue outsourcing deals that departments are grappling with. Whilst he conceded that these may be extended for some time (which goes against comments made in the past by other senior leaders at GDS), the agenda is to get out of them eventually. He said:

gds government
How do we push forward in the transformation of government recognising that actually a lot of the operation of government, the things that we can’t stop doing, have to continue to persist. There is no one answer. We are building within GDS a small team who can help plan the future of technology legacy remediation, to accelerate the consumption of a new estate. But it’s very different department by department.

I think we may see pragmatic extensions. At the end of the day we have got user needs that we need to meet. And if we are not in a position to do them with a new estate, then we have to consider what elements of the legacy estate are appropriate. We will have to be pragmatic about it, but I think that conversation becomes a forcing function for how quick can we get off?

My take

As I’ve said before, Foreshew-Cain’s more collaborative approach was needed and has been welcomed by many. It’s hitting the right note with departments.

That being said, he was right to also highlight the core challenges: skills and those pesky outsourcing deals. Reforming the recruitment process for the civil service is long overdue and changes here are desperately needed. What those changes will be are still unclear, but we look forward to hearing more.

As for the softer approach to suppliers, well, it makes sense. But I’m glad GDS is still ensuring that the suppliers that will be welcomed are those that have a focus on user need. Let’s see how many suppliers actually understand that….

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