I don’t take any pleasure in saying ‘I told you so’ - but the events unfolding this week in Whitehall are making it rather difficult. Almost exactly a year ago, we at diginomica wrote a story with the headline ‘J’accuse John Manzoni’, where we declared that we had no confidence in him as the Civil Service CEO needed to execute the digital transformation required across government.
After almost 12 months, it seems that we were right. There is currently a digital purge being carried out in Whitehall, in an attempt to destabilise the good work carried out by the Government Digital Service (GDS) over the past five years.
Whilst the Cabinet Office will tell you officially that this is not the case, make no mistake about what is happening. The long-standing power base across some of the most influential departments in Whitehall are using the post-Brexit chaos as an opportunity to make a land grab for the power (and money) they so enjoy.
Let me make this clear - in my opinion, senior civil servants in the Department for Work and Pensions, the Home Office and HMRC have thrown the interests of citizens out of the window, in an attempt to maintain the status quo. Heels are digging in and the political daggers are out.
Hyperbole? No. This is a critical moment in the government digital revolution and one that shouldn’t be shrugged off. The Cabinet Office will put out statements stating that the digital agenda is still of high importance, that GDS is still central to plans and that the commentary is disproportionate - but unless something soon is done, I fear that this is the beginning of the dismantling of GDS and its innovative Government-as-a-Platform strategy.
One former senior GDS employee has described it as a “day of the long digital knives”.
Sources have told me that GDS is set to be briefed by John Manzoni today, where they will be told that their second executive director, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, is soon to be replaced by DWP’s director general for business transformation, Kevin Cunnington.
Not only this, but sources indicate that digital chiefs at the Home Office, DWP and HMRC have either been evicted by their permanent secretaries or are leaving their posts. Only five days ago MPs noted the importance of HMRC CDO Mark Dearnley staying in his job to managing the replacement of the multi-billion outsourcing contract that is Aspire - one that poses significant risks not only to the public purse, but to the future capability of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. They said:
As we have reported on a number of occasions, changes in senior management are one of the factors that hinder the successful delivery of major government programmes.
Digital is said to be one of the top priorities for government and yet permanent secretaries are taking great pleasure in getting rid of the very digital people that are so hard to attract into public service. And make no mistake, it is no coincidence that the disruption is happening at the centre of Whitehall’s most influential departments.
It’s arguable that these departments face the greatest amount of digital disruption and require the most help in implementing new systems to support a modern government - DWP (Universal Credit/welfare reform), HRMC (Aspire) and the Home Office (border control). And yet, perm secs and Manzoni think it suitable to pull the plug on the digital capability that many have spent years building up - and for what? What’s going to change now?
Ex-GDS team member, Andrew Greenway put it beautifully in a post on Medium, when he said:
What’s playing out in the shadows of this strange summer is a timeless Whitehall battle. On one side those who seek to direct from the centre, on the other, big departments who prefer to be left to their own devices. It’s a battle that goes back 150 years. The centre is not holding.
That’s OK if everyone is on the path towards improvement. Whitehall’s watchers are not saying this.
Meanwhile, GDS is following the course charted by other successful centralised reformers in government. Icarus-like soaring for a few years. The occasional flutter of feathers. Then a headlong dive into the timeless, inky depths of the bureaucratic abyss. The sun always rises, Whitehall always wins.
Selfish, power hungry departments that have been operating the same way for over a century are winning the battle against a disruptive force at the centre of Whitehall - a disruptive force that has been hailed and replicated by countries the world over.
Let this be a warning to you Australia, the US and any other country that has followed the GDS route - watch out for those political snakes operating in the shadows, waiting for the right time to strike.
Also, let me just be clear that I do not think that GDS is perfect. Far from it. But it’s essentially a start-up that is scaling, of course it isn’t perfect. It’s made mistakes and it will continue to do so. However, do we want to go back to the way things were? A time when a handful of large outsourcers and SIs controlled all our public systems, badly, and were paid huge sums for the pleasure? A time when citizens couldn’t do simple things like register to vote online in under 5 mins? Or pay their vehicle tax online without huge pain?
I certainly don’t. I don’t know if GDS would have been successful, but its £450 million budget isstill £150 million less than the NHS had to pay CSC AFTER it messed up providing national healthcare systems. Yup, the NHS owed CSC £600 million after it was confirmed that the systems were effectively useless. In total the contract costed over £2 billion - for nothing.
Or what about the hundreds of millions of pounds being written off in software assets because of the flailing Universal Credit system that was managed by large IT providers?
This gives you an indication that this isn’t about money. It’s about change. And those with power not wanting to relinquish that power in exchange for a new body with new ideas that may well be doing things differently and for the better.
The similarities with Brexit and the European Union are astonishing. No matter the benefits, let’s close ourselves off, lock down and go it alone. That’s essentially the attitude of the Whitehall departments.
As one source close to the matter said to me today - “the culture of the senior civil service rewards those who do good snake”. Quite. Until the Civil Service can adopt a culture of change in disruption in favour of power grabs that persist with the status quo, then snakes will continue to succeed.
A sad day for digital government. Ironically, the same day the UN has just ranked the UK as the leading country for e-government.
I’ll no doubt get told that I’ve drunk too much of the GDS Kool-Aid for my views in this piece. But others dismissed my concerns a year ago, where my first J’accuse Manzoni piece was labelled an overreaction.
I wish I wasn’t right, but in my view Stephen Foreshew-Cain and the Government-as-a-Platform haven’t been given the chance they deserve and this could well be the beginning of the end for GDS progress. I hope I’m wrong.