“I’m seeing the slow dismantling of GDS”, warns outgoing government contractor

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez November 10, 2016
Ann Kempster has delivered a devastating summary of how the old-guard within the civil service are working to undo the work done by the Government Digital Service (GDS).

The Government Digital Service, and digital government more broadly, are under threat.

That’s according to a government contractor that has worked across a number of departments and digital roles in Whitehall, who is now leaving because she feels “angry” about the way the old-guard are working to undo the progress that has been made over the past six years.

In a blog that serves as a pretty damning indictment of the powers that be within the civil service, Ann Kempster writes how government is “ruled by a cadre of senior civil servants and politicians who don’t understand technology”.

These are sentiments I’ve iterated myself in previous months. Just in August I pointed the finger at civil service CEO John Manzoni, after what one former senior GDS employee described as a “day of the long digital knives”.

On that day in August then executive director of GDS Stephen Foreshew-Cain was ousted and replaced by the DWP’s director general for business transformation, Kevin Cunnington. Why? We are yet to be told.

Just as we are yet to be told what exactly is the government’s current strategy as it relates to digital. We are expecting Cunnington and his team to release a digital strategy in the coming weeks (we are promised before the end of the year), but this document is already months late.

And what’s the bet it is released perilously close to Christmas, whilst no one is looking?

All of this follows the exodus of senior GDS-ers the previous year - again, we believe, because of the will of John Manzoni and the old-guard. Mike Bracken and co left, so I am told, because they couldn’t convince the senior powers within the civil service that widespread change is necessary.

Pointing the finger

Ann Kempster’s blog is astonishing because it is the first time (from what I can recall) that an outgoing government staffer has called out exactly what is going on, publicly. Most move on to the next thing and make a few comments behind closed doors or on Twitter, but Kempster wants us to know exactly what is going on.

And as she highlights in her blog, she knows government. She has worked in central government for over ten years and over that time has held eight roles, worked at eight departments, managed tens of millions of pounds of budget and helped to deliver over 40 digital projects/services.

This isn’t some newbie that has been slighted. She writes:

I thought that we’d won the fight between the old and the new after the creation of GDS. For a while we did. But then the civil service did what the civil service does and closed ranks.

Digital in central government is suffering in 2016.

The civil service has been through an unprecedented period of paralysis. We’ve had the year long run up to the general election in 2015, several long purdah periods, a spending review, another budget, the EU referendum, a change of administration and a long winded machinery of government change that’s still rumbling on without direction.

Kempster goes on to accuse those at the very top of the civil service of not wanting to really change how things work - at a time when that’s exactly what is needed. She continues:

I’m seeing the slow dismantling of GDS and all it’s strived to change. I’m seeing a lack of appetite in departments for real, meaningful transformation. I’m seeing a lack of effective leadership right from the very top of the civil service.

There is a lack of vision, lack of ambition and lack of any sort of a plan anywhere. There is a lack of interest.

All of this has taken a deep toll on getting anything done.

There is also danger from many angles.

We’re ruled by a cadre of senior civil servants and politicians who don’t understand technology, still think it’s a gimmick and are more concerned with building empires than delivering good services to the people of the United Kingdom.

Many civil servants lack even basic skills. Things as fundamental as knowing how to type – let alone the more advanced things they need to know to work in the 21st century. This makes them resentful of “digital” and resistant to the change that it means.

They are more concerned with building empires than delivering good services - let that sink in. These are people that should be serving the interests of citizens.

Kempster goes on to explain that very little is being done to support civil servants, let alone having a plan to upskill them - something that’s desperately needed. She adds that pay, reward and performance management structures are not fit for the 21st century and that creative thinking, innovation and new ways of doing things are not recognised or rewarded.

In other words it’s an uphill battle. She finished by saying:

And because of this, I find myself not caring anymore. I find it hard to motivate myself to turn up and do anything in this climate of disruption and uncertainty. I find myself angry more than I’m not.

I don’t want to burn out entirely. Some little part of me still cares and will always care about government. But it’s time for some self care.

It’s time, after a decade, for me to leave central government.

Challenges in the USA

white house
It just so happens that this week the USA’s digital government arm is also facing a challenge - in the form of the GSA and The Washington Post. The general assessment being that the Stateside, but GDS-inspired, 18F is essentially a ‘waste of money’.

This assessment was succinctly rebutted by Tom VanAntwerp from tax research group, Tax Foundation, in a medium post entitled ‘18F is Hardly a Waste of Money’. He rightly wrote:

Would I like to see 18F achieve complete cost recovery? Sure. Will I be angry if they don’t, and rant about the need to shut them down? Nope. For context, the government paid $1.7 billion to outside contractors for healthcare.gov, a site which didn’t work at launch. That was a boondoggle.

Imagine if all of 18F’s projects had been given to those same contractors. How much larger would that $31.66 million deficit be then? If 18F can successfully complete similar projects for a tiny fraction of the cost, that is a win for taxpayers.”

America has been an innovation leader for a century. It’s embarrassing when our government IT infrastructure is decades behind and barely functional. As a citizen, we should all demand better. Having seen what 18F can do, I want them to keep going.

Some people won’t be happy with what they are doing, including inflexible bureaucrats and price-gouging contractors. But for the sake of us ordinary citizens, I hope than these special interests fail to stop the modernization of our digital infrastructure.

Following the US general election, 18F is now also faced with a Trump administration. And who knows what that will bring? He’s already isolated Silicon Valley, let’s hope that that’s not a sign of things to come.

And here lies the heart of the problem - both for the USA and the UK. There are too many people with a vested interested in maintaining the status quo. People instinctively try to keep their jobs, and often the view is that to keep your job you have to keep doing things the way they have always been done. A new way of doing things may make your current job role irrelevant, but instead of trying to adapt and learn, it’s easier to dig the heels in and keep the job role as is.

Equally, there are IT companies that have been securing billions of £/$ for decades from government. They secured those billions whether or not they delivered. Often those companies relied upon the ineptitude of government to ensure that they could just keep charging, regardless of the outcomes.

GDS/18F threatens all of this. And it would be naive to believe that those benefiting from the current system won’t do what they can to stop it from changing.

My take

I do worry about the number of good people leaving the civil service because of the resistance faced and the hard work required to change things even a tiny bit. I don’t blame them, but I do worry. Who is going to put up the good fight?

I’ve been accused of being too pro-GDS, which I understand. So let me say this now - there are fundamental flaws with GDS and things do need to change. It’s by no means a perfect organisation and work needs to be done to embed proper digital workings across government.

However, having said that, to all of those cheering the demise of GDS - do you want to go back to the way things were? It would certainly make my job more interesting to write about IT failure after IT failure in government, but that’s not the story I want to be writing about.

The UK has an opportunity to lead and show the rest of the world how digital government can directly improve the lives of citizens. Let’s not cock it up.

Image credit - Changes signpost © pablographix - Fotolia.com.

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