Interview - GDS Director Stephen Foreshew-Cain on what keeps him up at night

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez February 11, 2016
Stephen Foreshew-Cain took time to sit down with us at Sprint 16 to discuss the changing role of the Government Digital Service in Whitehall.

Stephen Foreshew-Cain
Stephen Foreshew-Cain speaking at Sprint 16

There was a distinctly different tone to the Government Digital Service’s annual Sprint event this week, when compared to previous years. It was less about GDS as the ‘revolutionaries’ and more about creating a shared will to use digital to drive change across government.

GDS executive director Stephen Foreshew-Cain, who took over from the formidable Mike Bracken last year, has obviously recognised that digital in Whitehall can’t become a lasting movement if it continues to be ‘us versus them’. Us being GDS, them being other departments.

It’s clear that this has already begun to penetrate and take hold. Throughout the day we not only heard from GDS itself and its friends in the industry, but we heard from people across various ranks across within a number of departments including the Ministry of Justice, the Office for National Statistics, Department for Work and Pensions, the Home Office, the FCO and BIS.

Foreshew-Cain finished the day with a presentation and a large message behind him that read “We’ve got your back”. It seems GDS is beginning to recognise that this is as much about cultural change and bringing the Civil Service along with it as it is about being the ‘disruptors’.

I luckily got to sit down with Foreshew-Cain at the event to discuss the changing role of GDS and to ask him about what he perceives are the biggest challenges for digital delivery over the next parliament - or as he puts it: ‘what keeps him up at night’.

GDS is pivoting

There has been plenty of discussion and debate about how much GDS can do from the centre (will it become a software shop for government?) and how much should be done internally within departments. Equally, there has been an ongoing build versus buy argument rumbling over the past few months, with some claiming that the government has no place to be building software itself.

Personally I don’t think it’s as black and white as ‘build’ or buy’, ‘centre’ or ‘dispersed’. Foreshew-Cain seemed to agree with this sentiment, but did confirm that GDS is somewhat pivoting and that government will continue to build. He said:

One of the things I think about very much - is the pivot away from GDS doing stuff to departments doing stuff? It depends what you define by ‘stuff’. Where is digital transformation happening? It’s happening where it was always happening, which is out in departments.

We are pivoting I think as an organisation at the centre and we no longer have to establish from a zero base. We have to recognise that actually the last parliament was about building capability in departments as much as doing it for them. And we are moving away from doing things for departments to supporting them to do it for themselves. Potentially doing it with them. We intend to provide a transformation support service where if they need expert help, service mapping, we will be there to support them to do that.

Are we going to build everything in the centre? We will build some stuff in the centre, where it makes sense to do so. But we also recognise that there is deep domain knowledge out there, sitting in departments and where we can provide standards that allow them to build things that are truly built once, built well and designed to be consumed by the whole of government - we will help them do that. Historically that has been difficult for departments.

What I will say is that we will make sure it gets built, that digital infrastructure that’s required for the transformation of government. It is going to get built. I don’t care where it gets built, as long as it gets built.

The budget

I think it’s fair to say that when the Chancellor George Osborne announced that GDS would be receiving £450 million over the next parliament, there was an element of surprise from spectators. I don’t think that many people expected that level of support from the Treasury, especially considering the disruption GDS experienced up until the announcement.

But the financial commitment from the Chancellor means that GDS now has the budget to make some significant decisions over the next five years. I was keen to find out whether Foreshew-Cain felt any pressure now, knowing that there will be high expectations on GDS to prove its worth.

His response was:

I think they always expected a lot. Maybe they will be more vocal about it. God I hope [we won’t be more cautious]. One of the things that I did not expect in joining the Civil Service was the resilience of civil servants to speak truth to power and people willing to take a hard call to redirect. GDS was instrumental in bringing adaptive and agile working practices into government and telling people it’s okay to discover a thing that nobody expected.

I think the mantra remains, the strategy is delivery, start small, scale quickly, but learn and make mistakes and be brave in doing so. I hope that doesn’t change and I hope we don’t feel a weight to get it right every time because someone has given an investment of half a billion.

No, I hope we aren’t cautious. I hope we don’t slow down. I hope we are careful and I hope we think about what we are doing. And I hope we are intentional in the choices we make, but I hope we are bold about the choices we make as well.

Whilst Foreshew-Cain couldn’t yet give too much away about how the money would be spent over the next five years, given that GDS is currently going through a detailed business planning process, he did say that it would be “distributed quite evenly across the work GDS is doing”.

Part of it will be continuing to operate the platforms that GDS has already established (GOV.UK, Verify, Pay, etc.), as well as aggregating demand from departments and establishing what else is needed. He added that we can still expect up to 40 platforms to be developed, but it will be based on the collective needs of the departments.

Equally, finances will be allocated to the data programme, which is currently being developed within GDS and is growing in importance. We heard a great deal at Sprint 16 about the need to clean up the government’s data, establish what data is there and allocate it to data authorities that can operate an up to date, better understood data registers. This should allow digital services to be more easily built and allow citizens better control over their data.

Foreshew-Cain said that part of this has meant building a software-as-a-service application at the centre,

Steve Foreshew, new leader of GDS

which will be used by departments and authorities that hold the registers to manage the data. Second to this, there will be an investment in establishing what policies and governance regimes are required to manage that data effectively.

And then there’s the other part of the funding, which is Common Technology Services. Designing the blueprints and helping departments roll that out.

He added that this parliament is going to be about establishing and cementing that shared responsibility across government to deliver digital services.

The thing that I think happened over the last parliament is that we did a bunch of stuff about designing services, about user need, new ways of working and being honest and transparent about when things worked and when they didn’t. None of that really could have worked if there wasn’t a sense of shared responsibility and collective will to change government. And GOV.UK is the embodiment of that, which is a disaggregated supply chain. You can’t start a service unless it’s on GOV.UK.

I think one of the things we are moving to is a new shared responsibility model. And we have to think about the implications of that. I don’t think it’s a ‘don’t do it’ because you are sharing responsibility in a different way than we had thought of in departmental cycles before. I think it’s a ‘what does it mean?’ question.

The challenges

Thankfully Foreshew-Cain was happy to acknowledge that all of this comes with some significant challenges. One of the challenges he highlighted isn’t one that I thought would be brought up, but on reflection it makes sense. GDS in the past has been criticised for its ‘exemplars’, which are key services it picked to ‘transform’, with some claiming that these amounted to nothing more than lipstick on a pig.

Now, when you’ve dealt with horrible government websites, some are just grateful for the lipstick. However, Foreshew-Cain is right to acknowledge that GDS needs to think more broadly about the redesign and measurement of whole services. He said:

We have some experience of what it takes to digitally transform a transaction, which is really what the exemplars were about. But they weren’t the whole service, they were a digital component. I think the cycle time - how long it takes from having a new service that we would like to digitise and the point at which we are hitting a live test state - and to see that shortening. I think that’s an important measure of whether we have got it right.

I think moving away from measures such as digital take-up and cost per transaction, because they focus on the digital bit of a whole service. Once again, making sure there are whole service measures in place so that we can look at the whole ecosystem of a service and make sure it’s functioning.

Simply digitising a service and making it available doesn’t necessarily free up capacity in a call centre or another processing centre, unless there is someone looking at the whole service and understands the impact that digital can have on the service chain. [We need to devise] what is a good measurement model or measurement framework of how we assess the full impact of business transformation.

Secondly, and rightly so, Foreshew-Cain admitted that skills is a problem for digital in government and said that the way that the Civil Service acquires its talent needs to be rethought. He said that GDS is putting a lot of work in to this, in terms of establishing what it means to be a ‘technology’ person working in government.

The one that keeps me awake at night is people. And how do we attract people? I’ve worked in a number of high tech companies and consultancies that have [people that] really want to go and do something with their work, have an impact with the work that they do. And I think the Civil Service is a great place to come and do that.

At the moment our recruitment processes, by comparison to the pace at which the market can move, take weeks to do a simple processing activity. We need to fix that. And that’s part of the Civil Service digital work. Also, making sure we have a statement about what is it to be a digital, technologist or data specialist within the Civil Service and what are the opportunities for you?

When I talk to young technologists they want flexibility in their career, they want to be able to move around. If I can find people that really want to be able to make an impact in the work that they do and I can deliver to them a flexible career structure that allows them to do different things, given the scale of what government does, that’s a really attractive proposition.

And then there’s the tricky question of pay (at a time when departments are being asked to slash huge chunks from their budgets). Foreshew-Cain said:

We then come on to the hard one, which is what is the reward and retention strategy? If we find these people and we have a place to put them in government that we really can give them something that makes them want to stay. ‘Wants to stay’ is an interesting question - I’m obviously someone that is a recent joiner to the Civil Service and a lot of the stuff I bring in is stuff I did not learn at the Civil Service, I brought a bunch of capabilities in.

I would like to make us more porous with the private sector. That actually people could join the Civil Service for a period, could go back out into the private sector, work on something quite interesting that is not of government and then bring that knowledge back to us. I’m not sure we have the incentives right for that to happen.

Equally, Foreshew-Cain notes government doesn’t always do the best job of reflecting the true diversity of the country we live in, both in terms of its internal make-up, as well as the services it delivers. As the Cabinet Office’s LGBT+ champion he has a particular role in this, but he also more broadly wants to makes sure digital reflects ‘the people’. He said:

I sit in a room that has a window and I’m reminded every day that actually there is quite a wide range of people in this country that have to use our services. And yet I look at the diversity of the technology profession specifically, but probably the Civil Service as a whole, and we are not there.

We do not represent the full breadth of people that are going to use these services. I think it is important that we put diversity at the heart of our people strategy.

My take

This was my first meeting with Foreshew-Cain and as I noted earlier, his tone and style is distinctly different from the leadership team that we had at the Sprint event last year. And personally I think that this is a good thing for GDS at this moment in time.

Bracken & Co. did an excellent job of making Whitehall aware of digital and the opportunity there, but there was certainly an element of ‘we know better than you’. And that had created friction.

GDS needs to bring the Civil Service with it on its journey and I think Foreshew-Cain gets that. He knows that if this is going to work, he needs to get people to change their behaviour across all levels of government.

And there is still a way to go. Despite the back-slapping at yesterday’s event, it’s hard to ignore that there are still plenty of people in Whitehall that don’t get why digital is important. Either that, or their jobs depend on digital not becoming a thing - complexity and bureaucracy are protecting many a job in the Civil Service.

But, as Foreshew-Cain finished by saying, there’s definitely the belief that digital isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. He said:

I think what we have done is deliver a collective will to change this. This is why I don’t think if I were to disappear tomorrow, that this could roll back. I think this will continue to roll forward. I think what we are seeing now is a recognition that this was the thin edge of the wedge.

That the work we are doing in commercial skill, the way we think about major projects, how we think about whole services, I think that there is a momentum that is building behind that, which is just irresistible. And I think that they get it.

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