GDS - “There is a huge opportunity through Brexit”

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez February 12, 2017
GDS Deputy Director of Standards Assurance, Olivia Neal, spoke of the organisation’s aims to keep international conversations open.

Olivia Neal, Deputy Director Standards Assurance, GDS
Olivia Neal, Deputy Director Standards Assurance, GDS

The Government Digital Service (GDS) believes that there is a “huge opportunity” for Whitehall to build on its agile ways of working and international relationships as a result of the Brexit vote last summer. This is according to the organisation’s Deputy Director of Standards Assurance, Olivia Neal, who was speaking at the Think Digital Government 2017 conference in London last week.

The event took place the day after the release of the much delayed and much anticipated Government Transformation Strategy, which outlines the Civil Service’s plans to modernise the way it works and interacts with citizens, to 2020 and beyond.

Neal also spoke of the UK’s leading position in the UN’s ranking of e-government and about how GDS must continue to collaborate internationally with other governments in order to stay ahead - and hinted that this may continue to be with countries mostly outside of the EU.

However, despite hearing on the day that Brexit is likely to replace digital as the biggest show in Whitehall from another panel, Neal had a more positive take on the result of the EU referendum. She said:

I think there is a huge opportunity through Brexit. I think for us as a government, for us to deliver what we need to do over the next three years, there’s a real opportunity to use the foundations we have put in place, working in agile ways, bringing together policy making and service design - if we don’t do that, we aren’t going to deliver the things we need to.

I think internationally we need to keep talking to people around the world. I think keeping those networks open, not just in the EU, but around the world, helps us build those links with countries like Australia, America and Canada - who are in really similar positions to us.

And when asked if she thought GDS would mostly collaborate with countries outside of the EU, Neal said:

Probably, but I’m not sure it’s Brexit related. The countries that we’ve tended to coordinate most strongly with, which might be a language factor, actually tend to be fairly Commonwealth. Partly because they’ve got a similar structure to us and they face similar challenges. For example, with Verify we have worked a lot with the Canadians, the Australians and New Zealand, because they have a similar approach to identity assurance.

I think we will also continue to work with the OECD and countries there, where we are a member of a number of working groups. But I’m not sure the Brexit implications are the driver for that.

Thinking internationally

One of the other key messages that Neal put across during her presentation was that whilst the UK is currently perceived to be a world leader in e-government, it shouldn’t become complacent about the fact that other countries are catching up and are doing lots of innovative things. Equally, there are countries in Africa, for example, that are able to innovate more quickly because they don't have the same legacy infrastructure to deal with.

Neal explained that if the UK wants to continue to lead the world, it needs to maintain and outward looking view and work collaboratively with other governments. In fact, she outlined how GDS is already jointly writing code for the Digital Marketplace with Australia, and how GDS is looking to set up new online collaboration platforms for designers internationally. Neal said:

Just last week we launched a search for a community of international government assignments. Right now in central government there are 500 designers working across design in central government. And we’ve built a community of those people that talk to each other and get together and share ideas and learn together. And we think we can build that out to a much wider range of people. The problems and challenges we are facing aren’t unique to the UK.

So we are setting up a community of international designers from around the world. This might be through Slack, or Google Hangouts, or blogging. But building an awareness of what’s going on elsewhere.

We think there’s things that they will want to talk about like growing service design, developing co-authored patterns, how to recruit and retain the best people in government with these skills. And if that works for design, this is something we can look at in other areas as well.

And on the work the government has done with Australia, Neal said:

And we’ve also recently been learning from our Australian colleagues. The Digital Marketplace improves procurement by making it easier for suppliers to work with the public sector. This is something that other countries are keen to replicate, we have had a lot of interest in it.

The Australians used the code from our Digital Marketplace. And they launched the beta of theirs in five weeks, which was months ahead of schedule. Having done that, the two teams from Australia and the UK are now working on a shared backlog so that the development that happens in either country can benefit both of us.

More of the same

Neal pointed out that in the recently released Government Transformation Strategy it highlights that the UK will continue to share what it has built and that it will keep learning from best practice in other countries, in order to make our services better.

It won’t be lost on readers that this outward approach is counter to much of the nationalism that’s occurring currently in mainstream politics. However, Neal believes that if we want to make a significant difference in how we deliver services and how the Civil Service runs, then we need to continue to work with other countries. She said:

One of the keys to success over the last five years, one of the keys to getting us into this position as the world leading government on digital, has been cross-government working and conversations. That is by no means done.

Looking at the Transformation Strategy, keeping that cross-government network and conversations going, are going to be really vital in delivering what we need to do. But we need to do more than that, the bar is being raised around the world. We’ve got to be looking outwards.

So to make our digital journey a success, we need to be looking across international boundaries, we need to continue to be open about how we are doing things, as well as what we are doing, and we need to continue to look outwards to see what we can learn from - rather than trying to solve all the problems ourselves.

My take

Could digital be the mechanism by which we avoid locking ourselves down and becoming insular in nature? Possibly. It was certainly nice to hear how GDS is keeping its doors open to those governments around the world that also want to work collaboratively. That being said, the final panel of the day on Brexit painted a dark picture for the complications around exiting the EU. This is going to be a decade long project and it is by no means clear who the winners and losers are just yet.