Yesterday Derek ran through some of the ‘to do’ list for the Government Digital Service and digital government in general in the wake of the Conservative Party winning a majority in last week’s General Election.
One thing that was unclear at that point was who would actually be in charge of this at ministerial level as Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, had stepped down at the end of the previous parliamentary term, after five years driving efficiency reforms, forcing IT vendors into contractual renegotiation and backing initiatives such as Cloud First and GDS work on digital examplars.
He was always going to be a hard act to follow and there were many, myself included, who in the wake of the surprise Tory majority, rather hoped he might continue in the role as Lord Maude (or similar). There's plenty still to do.
One of Maude’s greatest advantages in the role - and one of the things that annoyed the hell out of certain (not all) IT providers - was his enduring tenure. Rather than being shuffled around to new posts, Maude stayed where he was and pushed through his agenda.
But it’s not to be. Maude will continue in govenment, but as Trade Minister for the Foreign Office and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS).
One into two?
So, who’s his replacement? Well, that seems to be a rather moot point as there are two people who have appointed with a certain lack of clarity as to where specific responsibilities will lie. In short, Maude’s role seems to have split in two.
First up is Matt Hancock, named as Minister for the Cabinet Office (Maude’s old title), charged with taking forward efficiency reforms, but Oliver Letwin takes “overall charge” of the Cabinet Officer as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
Hancock’s appointment was met with approval by the Institute for Government think tank, whose director Peter Riddell commented:
Political leadership is crucial to securing lasting changes to the way central government operates and to building support in the civil service for reform. Mr Hancock has already shown himself an energetic minister, encouraging apprenticeships and promoting business and innovation. He now faces big challenges, not only in achieving the large efficiency savings which the Conservatives promised in their election manifesto, but also in extending digital government and further reforming the operation of Whitehall.
What is interesting - and some might argue alarming - is that neither Hancock nor Letwin’s, admittedly brief, job descriptions to date reference GDS or digital government. A more detailed breakdown of responsibilities will be published soon.
In another development, a new ministerial post has been created - that of Minister for Small Business, a role filled by Anna Soubry, MP for Broxtowe. Maude’s administration at the Cabinet Office was one of the main drivers for the inclusion of greater small business participation in government contracts.
Again, more details are required as to how this new minister will work within the wider digital policy landscape, but Chris Bryce, Chief Executive of IPSE, the Association of Independent Professionals of Self Employed, has welcomed the creation of the new post:
The creation of a ministerial post for small business is a positive statement of intent that the new government recognises the importance of the UK’s small businesses and will make good on the promises it has made towards them. With 4.5 million people working for themselves in the UK we hope that the Minister’s brief will also contain the self-employed who are vital to the UK’s economy.
The success of the self-employed is vital to the success of the UK economy and this appointment is a positive response to IPSE’s call for a ministerial post for small business to represent our smallest businesses at the heart of Government. We look forward to working with the Minister and all relevant departments to ensure that the voice of the self-employed is heard at all levels of Government.
Maude will be, as I said above, a genuinely hard act to follow - something that a fair few among the ‘traditional’ providers to government might well be hoping remains the case.
I’m also slightly alarmed by what the Institute for Government calls “the slightly odd wording of the Prime Minister’s tweet” when announcing Hancock’s appointment.
There was a lot of whispering and back-stabbing going on among the Whitehall establishment during the last Parliament about the role of GDS, machinations that led to at least one former minister complaining to the Prime Minister about the service’s role and remit.
With Letwin also in the frame at the Cabinet Office, I do hope that those in whose interest it is to limit the reach of GDS haven’t managed to score themselves a victory by diluting lines of responsibility.
As noted above, one of Maude’s strengths was the basic bloody-mindedness of his hanging on to his office and continuing to push through reforms. All too often ministerial appointments are mayfly-like and there’s an ability to reboot uncomfortable policies on a regular basis.
As the UK sitcom Yes Minister noted with sublime cynicism, only keeping minsters in a job for a limited time meant the status quo could be ensured:
Power goes with permanence. Impermanence is impotence. Rotation is castration, It’s time they [the Cabinet Ministers] all had a little spin.
Clarification of the specific responsibilities and lines of reporting is something that will be most welcome.
Meanwhile congratulations to Hancock and Letwin. We’ll be keeping a very close eye on their progress in the weeks and months to come.