When you've trained as a news journalist, some of the most interesting stories to write are those that involve criticising someone or something that has mostly received widespread praise and has typically been used as an exemplar to highlight to other people what they're doing wrong.
In that identity, it's part of our job to pick at things and to try and strip away the PR crap – and unfortunately, this is all the more exciting when it involves writing about an entity that has largely received good coverage and has traditionally been a bit of a darling of the government IT chattering classes.
This is definitely true of the Government Digital Service (GDS). For the past few years it has been fascinating how a small experiment in the depths of the Cabinet Office has grown into this powerful force in Whitehall that is genuinely driving change and delivering better services for citizens.
Especially when commenting on and analysing government IT had previously mostly involved listening to how yet another department or project had cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions, if not billions, of pounds.
GDS is doing something different, something that hasn't been seen in many other places in the world, and it has been good to follow something so interesting.
However, as I've alluded to, a fall from grace is equally fascinating – if not more so.
And that's definitely been the case over the past couple of weeks, where GDS and its procurement counterpart, the Crown Commercial Service (CCS), have received a battering, thanks to a number of emerging details and stories that all seemed to come together and form the perfect storm.
First of all there was the backlash from SME suppliers on the Digital Services Framework, which claimed that the framework was so poorly structured that it left the companies listed as cheap body-shops for government departments.
This was followed by G-Cloud founder Chris Chant giving a speech that called for CCS – an organisation he believes to be old-school in its culture and one that is damaging digital progress in Whitehall – to be scrapped and rebuilt in some shape or form. Tellingly, Chant's idea received a fair bit of support.
The Digital Services Framework debacle then went from bad to worse, as CCS was found to be sending letters out to suppliers claiming that agile services were being stripped from the G-Cloud, which would leave buyers little choice but to use the unworkable Digital Services Framework.
The letters indicated to many that CCS and GDS may not be working on the same page, given that GDS had been promising others at the same time that the agile services would remain, whilst the Digital Services Framework went through a redesign.Then later on this week it emerged that a £1.5 billion labour contract that was commissioned by CCS, and operated by Capita, was squeezing SMEs out and costing them tens of millions of pounds.
It was a disastrous week. And I bet many people within the Cabinet Office will be heading straight to the pub this evening.
However, whilst this has been fascinating to watch, and incredibly interesting to write about, I feel compelled to balance out a week of negativity (much of which I might well be accused of being responsible for) with a reminder that GDS is indeed on the right track, that progress is being made and at least we have a government department that is actually willing to change its opinion openly when given community feedback.
Again if you've trained as a news journalist, the instinct is to be quick to give everyone a hard time, but perhaps less quick to point out when an organisation is actually doing what we have been asking them to do. At diginomica, we want to be different.
Just to clarify, I am largely referring to the Government Digital Service in this case. I know less about the inner workings of CCS and there still seems to be a significant amount of concern in the community about how they operate, so for the time being, I am reserving judgement on that one.
But GDS did listen this week. Even though there were a number of cock-ups along the way – namely CCS sending letters out to suppliers, which should never have been sent out – Tony Singleton's public blog about the criticisms facing the Digital Services Framework, and what he's going to do about it, is a prime example of how a transparent government should operate.
In other areas of Whitehall (DWP, for example), everyone may know that there are problems with a project, and yet any question put to them about what has gone wrong and what is being done to fix it would typically be met with a stern “everything is fine, go away” from some defensive press officer acting as a front line deterrent to inquiry.
Which is why I think it's important to highlight Tony Singleton's blog as a step in the right direction. In the blog he clearly states that he knows there are problems with the Digital Services Framework, he admits that scrapping it had been considered and then ruled ruled out and he outlines how he hopes to improve it going forward. For example, he says:
Although I cannot answer yet what form DS3 will take, what’s obvious to me, is that there’s agreat deal that needs to be done to put the Digital Services framework right. It’ll be for the discovery phase to explore the framework vehicle and come up with the answers.
We’re setting up a multidisciplinary team, made up of the right people from GDS, CCS and Treasury Solicitors (TSol) to work on this. We’ll listen to private sector experts, many of whom have recently written about the shortcomings of the current Digital Services framework. We’ll consult widely with Digital and Technology leaders across government.
We’ll think out loud by blogging about what we’ve discovered and what we’re proposing. All this will allow us to take account of the widest range of views possible to ensure that DS3 is developed in line with the GDS design principles and meets all user needs, regardless of who that user is.
Yes, GDS has cocked up the Digital Services Framework. But it is openly trying to work with stakeholders to get it right – that should be commended. That's not to say if they cock up again we won't highlight it - we really will! - but at this stage GDS is doing the right thing.
It is listening and iterating based on community feedback – isn't this what everyone wants?
Equally, I think it's important to remember the progress that has been made to date. Having attended the recent SPRINT15 event on digital progress in government, it was clear to me that GDS is going to be ramping up and it is going to be going for it over the next year, once the election in May is out the way.
Hundreds of millions of pounds has already been saved by shifting citizen facing transactions and process online. The G-Cloud has just turned three years old this week and has hundreds of millions of pounds going through it, opening up the public sector market to SMEs. There is also work being done to skill up the civil service and get people who actually know what they're doing into government departments.
Whilst savings have largely been the focus to date, whilst still remembering the need to design around what the user wants – GDS is now transitioning to the far more critical and important project of government-as-a-platform. And the focus on this over the next year or two will be tremendously important to the organisation.
However, if GDS learns from this Digital Services Framework debacle and handles government-as-a-platform differently, where it openly discusses challenges and lets the community help by sharing details amongst an open network, I genuinely believe we can get this right and have the UK as a world leader in digital government.
Some will probably say I'm sucking up to GDS with this piece, which is fine. But those who follow me regularly will know that I've got no problem giving people a hard time – in fact, it comes rather easily to me.
However, I genuinely believe GDS can't do this on its own and with the potential that government-as-a-platform has to offer, I think we should applaud them when they do something right...like listening, iterating and being open.
So, GDS: Keep calm, roll with the punches, learn, be open, and keep up the good work.