On the face of it this may appear to be an arbitrary, technical announcement. But in our view it signals a significant loss for GDS, one that makes its future prospects as a digital force within government far less likely.
This is a classic Whitehall story, one in which the move is largely being driven by personal agendas that recognise the opportunity for power and building new empires, rather than by the needs of citizens.
But before we proceed, it’s worth noting that we’ve argued recently that GDS is broken and needs fixing. We called out its leader Kevin Cunnington for being ineffective in driving the agenda forward and protecting GDS’ assets, as well as highlighted our top ideas for getting it back on track.
Once a powerhouse at the centre of government, and internationally applauded, it is now being perceived as a lame duck that no-one quite knows what to do with. That being said, we still believe that a central function for digital, data and technology, with spend controls to drive change across government, is the best chance that Whitehall has got.
Breaking that up - and moving data out, which underpins every new service created - pretty much puts a bullet in the lame duck.
So what do we know? In a classic move to bury bad news, the Prime Minister published a written statement to Parliament on the eve of the Easter break titled ‘Machinery of Government Changes’. It confirmed the move, which said:
This written statement confirms that the data policy and governance functions of the Government Digital Service (GDS) will transfer from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The transfer includes responsibility for data sharing (including coordination of Part 5 of the Digital Economy Act 2017), data ethics, open data and data governance. At the same time policy responsibility for digital signatures will move from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to DCMS, which will also jointly lead with BEIS on the relationship with the Open Data Institute, Digital Catapult and The Alan Turing Institute.
These changes will be effective from 1 April. The expanded Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport brings together in one place data policy for both government and the wider economy. This will support work, led by DCMS, to ensure the UK is fully realising the benefits of the data economy for all.
The note add that “GDS will continue its work supporting the ongoing digital transformation of government, building digital capability in the Civil Service and championing service design across government to meet user needs”. Comforting.
I’m sure some will argue that the reaction to the news is a bit hysterical. But the importance of data policy and governance - as well as digital signatures (trust/security) - should not be underestimated in the broader scope of digital reform.
I’m sure GDS will continue its work on upskilling the Civil Service (a lot of what it focuses on nowadays) and I’m sure it will continue to advise and consult with departments over their digital projects. However, in terms of rethinking the fundamental structures of Whitehall and the machinery of government, GDS is going to have a much tougher time.
Remember the plans for Government-as-a-Platform (GaaP)? Simply put, the idea was to create canonical, trustworthy data lists (registers) for the whole of government to tap into, with common platforms sitting on top, which would then allow services to be built (and destroyed) far more easily. See the image below for greater clarity:
Why is this significant? You take data out of GDS’ control and it no longer has control over this plan to rethink the structures of Whitehall. Data underpins everything and this is only going to become more true as advancements are made on the government’s work around AI and data sharing.
Those in control at DCMS - I am pointing fingers specifically at National Technology Adviser Liam Maxwell and DCMS Secretary of State Matt Hancock - know exactly this. They know if they control data, they control the future of digital government reform.
We’ve been aware that Maxwell has been pushing for months to bring over elements of GDS under DCMS’s control. Why? We would argue that this is empire building of the most classic kind. I have reached out to Maxwell to interview to hear his side.
Former chiefs of GDS Mike Bracken and Steven Foreshew-Cain, both called out DCMS for the power play and commented on their disappointment at the move. They tweeted:
So there it is. End of central UK authority for digital, data and technology. Whitehall power structure more important than user needs. For the record, this outcome designed by @liammax and @HeadUKCivServ for @MattHancock. Failure rewarded, announced on national holiday.
— Mike Bracken (@MTBracken) March 30, 2018
The anticipated and entirely avoidable decline. Cowardly to announce this way. And mostly poor stewardship of the amazing delivery teams that have worked so incredibly hard to deliver real change over the years at GDS. #thinedgeofthewedge
— Steve Foreshew-Cain (@s_foreshew_cain) March 30, 2018
Why does GDS need control?
It’s worth answering the question - if GDS has been considered a lame duck for a while now, why does it matter if DCMS wants data and has the ambition to go after it? Simply put, maintaining a central function of data, technology and digital, with spend controls, is probably the only way to drive change.
As noted above, GDS needs fixing. But it’s the only department outside of the Treasury to have the ability to enforce spend controls on other departments - an important mechanism for driving change. DCMS does not have this power, and it has typically been seen as a fringe department responsible for policy, with no track record on delivery.
By moving data governance and policy into DCMS, control over other departments is lost. DCMS is now going to be involved in the annual Treasury cycle to do anything with data and its clout across government is basically non-existent. It can’t push other departments to do anything.
Keeping data, digital and technology all in one place, at the centre, with the controls to force other departments to work with GDS, there was some hope to drive change. It’s a model that’s being used the world over. Breaking GDS up in this way - especially by taking out the core component of data - and GDS essentially becomes a policy department, much like DCMS.
Who is at fault here? Both those within GDS and DCMS. Again, the leadership within GDS obviously isn’t prepared to fight to keep what was applauded as an asset to Whitehall in tact. That’s incredibly disappointing. It’s widely known that GDS needs to change, but those at the top don’t seem willing to do anything about it and now it’s being picked apart.
Although my headline may be hyperbolic (RIP GDS) - this is certainly the end of GDS as we know it.
And those within DCMS know what they’re doing. Ministers come and go. I don’t think Hancock particularly knows what he’s doing or is anything special, but he wants to make a name for himself and is very good at identifying an opportunity to do so. Data will be central to everything in the future and he likely knows that. Maxwell on the other hand is someone that I’ve dealt with numerous times over the past six or seven years and he’s an incredibly smart, savvy person. He knows exactly what he’s doing and although I’m sure he thinks he can do a better job with data within DCMS, I’m not convinced it’s an entirely selfless move.
As I noted above, there are empires to be built. There always are.