Minister plays down concerns over GDS role - but the words he used are important

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez May 13, 2018
Cabinet Office Minister for Implementation Oliver Dowden aimed to reassure at last week’s GDS Sprint event. But we think there are some things to bear in mind.

Oliver Dowden, Cabinet Office Minister
Oliver Dowden, Cabinet Office Minister

Cabinet Office Minister for Implementation, Oliver Dowden, has shared some thoughts on the future role of the Government Digital Service (GDS) - aiming to allay recent concerns about its future role in Whitehall.

Dowden was speaking at GDS’ recent Sprint event, which aims to share best practice and allow government departments to collaborate. Full disclosure: I was unable to attend the event (unfortunately) due to previous travel commitments. However, I’ve read Dowden’s speech and some of the interviews he carried out with other journalists, and I think there are some points worth highlighting.

Whilst Dowden’s comments will on the face of it provide some reassurance to those concerned about a continued role for GDS at the centre of Whitehall - I think it’s important to acknowledge that some of the language used does suggest a shifting role. This is just my personal observations at this point, but as someone that has covered this beat for a long time, I’ve become very accustomed to a Minister’s ability to spin.

By way of background, concerns about GDS’ future role have been rumbling for a while now. They started when Kevin Cunnington took over the department, following a number of successive leadership changes over a short period of time. Having the weight of a Director General coming over from DWP was initially perceived as a positive thing, but following an interview with diginomica/government where Cunnington made comments about combining agile and waterfall approaches, people began to raise concerns.

Since then, many have argued that leadership has been lacking. In addition, there have been rumours about in-fighting between the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) and GDS over key services and tools, such as the Digital Marketplace.

However, fears about GDS being an effective digital department at the centre of Whitehall reached fever pitch when diginomica/government revealed that the data policy and governance functions would be moved out of GDS and taken over to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The move was perceived as a power play by Secretary of State, Matt Hancock, and National Technology Adviser, Liam Maxwell.

Given all of this, it’s no surprise that Minister Dowden is looking to allay concerns. That being said, Dowden’s comments, to me at least, do paint a different picture for the future role of GDS.

A government that works for everyone

Firstly, let’s take a look at Dowden’s speech at Sprint 2018. I believe it was one of his first high profile public appearances talking about GDS.

Straight off the bat, Dowden acknowledges that GDS is “evolving”. He said:

First, the challenge was to create a digital interface that helped people interact with government. As a result of that, hundreds of public services have digital front ends.

But a digital interface isn’t transformation - so next, GDS have taken on the challenge of end-to-end digitisation, looking at whole services to see how digital, data and technology expertise could actually help make government better for everybody.

And now GDS is looking to the future - to be the innovation incubator for government, staying ahead of the curve by identifying new solutions to some of the biggest challenges in the public sector.

This is where I think the language and wording are important. When Dowden talks about “end-to-end digitisation”, this undoubtedly can be read within the context of the government’s Transformation Strategy, which was all about moving beyond the ‘front end’ of digital services, towards transforming the back-end.

However, what interests me, is that Dowden is already talking about the future of GDS as an ‘innovation incubator’. If this is to be the case, this is something that needs defining. I would not describe GDS as an incubator at the moment - it has too much control at the centre. It is a digital authority. Incubators tend to be a source of inspiration, guidance and support for organisations that tap into it when needed. That would be my perception, anyway. As I said, this needs defining.

Taking this further, Dowden also made the following comments to journalists in a briefing at Sprint 18:

When we first started the process there were some big easy wins to be had by making sure whole areas of government that were not accessible digitally became accessible. The first phase was getting a digital interface, but too often behind that lay analogue systems.

So the second challenge becomes how you digitise through that and get efficiency savings that come with the digital process behind the face of it. We’ve still got more work to do that, but we can look at where are the next challenges.

I think there are huge challenges around govtech and that takes us into areas where you wouldn’t think there would be a digital solution – like in identifying the Daesh images (the subject of the first Govtech Challenge) – and you use that to expand the boundaries of digital.

So you get an end point where there’s fully digitised government, and in the process of that you’re going to have private sector involvement. You’re going to stimulate the private sector, which is a good thing.

There are a number of things to highlight here. Firstly, Dowden is signalling a shift in direction. The prominence of the Govtech Challenge - a £20 million fund announced by the Prime Minister in November, which aims to incentivise tech firms to come up with smart solutions for public sector problems - is interesting. This is coupled with statements by Dowden on “stimulating the private sector”. Are we talking about a shrinking down of GDS to an ideas organisation, which then hands off to the private sector? I’m not sure, but there’s a hint of that here.

Also, it surprises me that Dowden is talking about a “fully digitised government”. We are so far off that point and there are so many challenges to overcome to get there, it’s a little concerning. In fact, I’d say it’s a little laughable to even be talking about a “fully digitised government” (whatever that means), considering we’ve got so many challenges facing Whitehall - particularly in the wake of Brexit. We are still in the early days.

Spend controls

Just before Sprint last week, GDS also released a new blog post outlining the changes it will be introducing regarding spend controls. Spend controls have been one of the key mechanisms used by the department to drive change from the centre, as well as to reduce costs.

However, it appears that GDS is adopting a more collaborative and softer approach to spend control management with departments. In the past where GDS spoke of ‘red lines’, it is now talking about a ‘pipeline approach’, where instead of looking at individual services or technology projects, it is going to work with departments to develop a 15 to 18 month forward look at all their commercial, digital and technology spend.

GDS claims that this will bring a number of benefits, which include enabling earlier engagement between departments and GDS, ensuring “consistent application of standards” and bringing in a more iterative, holistic approach.

However, it’s undeniable that the main driver is to give departments more autonomy and authority, following years of with GDS.

In a briefing with journalists at Sprint, Dowden also commented on the spend control changes. He said:

When Francis Maude introduced the controls process it was to ensure that Cabinet Office made sure we had a grip on the procurement process. We’ve improved the processes within departments.

Now as we get to a point where we feel confident that those are working well we can start to survey the entire pipeline. We can say we are pretty confident in relation to most of those and that these are the things we want to pull out.

It’s about ensuring a more efficient approach where we can give departments greater freedom and we, at a more senior central level, can focus more on the departments where we need to do more work with them and on the projects at the higher risk end.

It’s really about managing the evolution of this process.

It’s inevitable that this will also raise some eyebrows. Whilst it’s likely to please departments, it is undoubtedly making some of GDS’ control mechanisms ‘softer’.

My take

None of this is end of the world, doom and gloom stuff. I’m not sitting here saying that “this is the end of GDS!”. However, what I will say is that Dowden’s comments, whilst very PR-friendly, are noteworthy. They indicate an vision for GDS in the future that is less hands on. One that comes up with ‘big problems in government’ and then hands these overs to those willing to solve them - either the private sector of within departments. Nothing against this as such, but my feeling is that this is maybe a bit premature. And if it’s a bit too soon to be thinking about a ‘fully digitised government’ at this stage - one has to ask the question, why is Dowden making these comments? What’s the driver? I’ll leave those questions open….