J'accuse John Manzoni – a vote of no confidence in digital transformation

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez August 10, 2015
The Chief Executive of the Civil Service, John Manzoni, doesn't understand why government-as-a-platform is important. And that's a problem.

John Manzoni

The UK government needs to be open to institutional reform if it wants to take advantage of the opportunities presented by digital and platform technologies.

Services need to be redesigned for the digital age, instead of government departments continuing to operate in silos and simply trying to get move value out of legacy systems that have been in place for more than 10 years. Such redesign requires at least four fundamental elements.

  • It requires a fresh approach to how data is used.
  • It requires the structure of central government to be reconsidered,
  • It requires a new approach to buying services.
  • Most of all it requires backing from the very top of the Civil Service.

And that is why we at diginomica reluctantly have to say that we have no confidence in Civil Service CEO John Manzoni to get the job done the way it needs to be done.

How we got here

The Government Digital Service (GDS) has been trailblazing a path over the past four years in the UK, where it has brought 'digital' to the top of the agenda.

It started off small, very much a start-up at the centre of Whitehall, and grew to have serious political clout, thanks to its ability to prove that services could not only be better designed but could cost less.

GDS, however, was still just getting started. As I wrote a few months ago, GOV.UK and the other 'exemplar services' it chose to design, and showcase were mere mechanisms that could be used to gain momentum to get buy-in for the 'bigger picture'.

That bigger picture was Government-as-a- Platform (GaaP). The UK has to date led this conversation globally. We were going to be the first government in the world to redesign itself around commodity services and agile digital design.

To reorganise and change how we use data, in combination with commoditised services and agile design, would have huge implications for the way policy is designed and built.

The idea was to build a public sector version of Amazon, where departments could be innovative, come up with ideas about how to fix problems, request the services they need, try and test the design cheaply and roll out if successful.

government as a platform
All of this is is game-changing stuff in government circles and the whole world was watching.  This has led to the likes of the United States and Australia citing the UK as leaders in digital government,  following in our footsteps, copying our set-up and are even using some of our code.

However, last week GDS director Mike Bracken announced that he will be stepping down at the end of September. It was a shock to many, and we have written extensively about the implications.

But having had a week to speak to people close to the matter and to collect information about what happened in the lead-up to Bracken's resignation, it has become increasingly clear to me that the agenda around GaaP and the wider digital transformation that is required is at risk.

And this threat is being driven - perhaps inadvertently -  from the very top.

A lack of faith

It was reported last week by the national press that Bracken had submitted a business case for GaaP to the Treasury, which it rejected. I put in a Freedom of Information request to the Treasury to get the details.

I'm still waiting for an answer.

However, I have since been made aware that things didn't even get that far.

mike bracken
Mike Bracken

I have been told that Bracken pitched the idea of GaaP, which requires institutional reform and the complete redesign of public sector services, to Manzoni, the man responsible for Civil Service reform – only to have it rejected out of hand.

Bracken laid his cards on the table and according to those in the know, Manzoni just didn't get it.

As a result, a lack of backing, and a lack of faith in GDS to do what is needed, has meant that Manzoni appears to be defaulting to   'business as usual ' mindset, something that 'Big IT' has been waiting less than patiently for the past 4 years.

All things come to those who wait, it seems.

Manzoni has spoken about decentralising the skills in GDS - a bad idea, which I'll revisit in a later post - and has been frankly dismissive about the Francis Maude 'era' , during which the former Minister for the Cabinet Office was an outspoken supporter of GDS and initiatives such as G-Cloud.

But according to the Manzoni view of the world, there is apparently a “dawning recognition” that:

...the modus operandi of the last five years won’t get us where we want to be.

I'm yet to hear from Manzoni what his ideas are, beyond him not being a 'centrist'.

But we can see the outcome of his change of tack even at this early stage.

People inside GDS are leaving. These are the same people that have saved services, such as Universal Credit, which if had been left to its own devices would be a train-wreck by now.

Just this morning, off the back of Bracken's announcement last week, three senior figures inside GDS have announced that they're leaving - Tom Loosemore, Deputy Director, Russell Davies, Director of Strategy, and Ben Terrett, Director of Design.

Read between the lines and it doesn't take much to understand why. Loosemore, for example, says:

Transformed digital services require transformed digital institutions.

In the UK, the imperative of such a radical re-invention of the civil service is yet to be recognised. It will require bold, brave, reforming leadership from the centre; leadership with the conviction, commitment and authority required to successfully challenge the shape, the size and the dominant culture of Whitehall.

Come that revolution, I’ll be first in line to serve HMG again.

So, in October I’m off to pastures as-yet-unidentified-even-by-me.

While, Davies notes:

It has been a brilliant time. Utterly stretching and satisfying. Fantastic, talented people, so clever and hard-working and honest and honourable, all trying to do the right thing.

I've learned an incredible amount and had the opportunity to do so many new things. Massive thanks to Martha for the plan, to Mike for the delivery and to Francis for the support. Best. Bosses. Ever.

I don't have any big plans for what to do next - except I'm going to walk the Coast to Coast at the end of October and I hope to help with doteveryone - but I do need a job.

It's easy to see the common themes are here: both trusted the previous leadership, both are leaving without a new job lined up, both have said that they will be back if there is support again from the top for the fundamental changes required.

And while they're too diplomatic to say it, I will – the current exodus is the fault of John Manzoni and his lack of enthusiasm to do something radically different.

I'd also like to add here that the current departures don't mean that GDS is now redundant.

There are still great people there doing great work. Current COO Steve Foreshew has just announced that he will be replacing Bracken, and I'm told that he's very good at what he does. There are still very talented teams working on interesting projects within the department.

But how far can they get without the support of Manzoni at the top? At the very least, it would be useful to have someone running the Civil Service that understands why a platform approach makes sense for public services.

From my understanding, Manzoni isn't willing to take on permanent secretaries and the roles of their departments, which may require a fundamental restructuring to get GaaP going.

If we don't have a Civil Service CEO that isn't willing to ruffle a few feathers, and is more interested in making friends, I don't hold much hope for the short to medium term.

The spending review

George Osborne
Spending review to come

Both Bracken and his successor Foreshew have hinted that Chancellor George Osborne's current spending review, which is set to be published on 25 November this year, will be critical to securing the future of GDS' platform plans.

While current Cabinet Minister Matthew Hancock has previously worked with Osborne, from my understanding, this hasn't resulted in closer ties between GDS and the Treasure - unfortunately.

Instead, it seems, that the next few months will see somewhat of a battle from those at the top of the digital agenda to fight for funds, to limit the chance of budget cuts and to stop any sort of significant headcount reduction within GDS.

For example, upon announcing his departure, Mike Bracken tweeted:

And Foreshew said in his latest blog post:

Alongside making sure we continue to deliver our priorities this year, our focus is on gearing up for the Spending Review, and getting a settlement that will enable us to drive the government’s digital agenda forward.

When November comes around will GDS have the same financial backing it currently has? The current rhetoric suggests not.

My take

Someone close to the matter recently said to me: “The real problem lies with the leadership of the Civil Service”.

There is a lack of political willingness to undertake a complete redesign of the Whitehall institution. It needs complete reform.

But the problem with that? The current system suits too many people and parties that have spent years building themselves a power base within Whitehall from which they can make money. The status quo is a comfortable place.

Can we honestly say that the current system is working?  HMRC runs okay, but Aspire is a mess of contracts with multiple margins that few people understand and will now likely stay in place for the foreseeable future despite all the rhetoric about winding down 'oligopoly' contracts.

Our border systems are a mess, where we barely understand who is in the country and who isn't. That's not said with a political agenda – it's fact.

We are still paying millions and millions of pounds for a version of Universal Credit that's never going to be used and will be replaced by a new digital version at some point in the future.

The NHS has seen more IT disasters than is worth thinking about.

And we still have big suppliers making money off of services that barely work and who will have more of a spring in their step now than at any time for the past four years.

We need Manzoni to be the leader that drives the necessary change.

He had the people that were willing to do it and now some of those people are gone. It's not too late if action is taken now.

Ironically, the other countries that have been following our lead, such as the US and Australia, are now likely to be the ones that 'get it' and benefit from our pioneering innovation. Well done.

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