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Sprint 16 - All eyes on the Government Digital Service’s new guard

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez February 9, 2016
The Government Digital Service’s new leaders will take the stage this week at the annual Sprint event to explain the next stage of digital transformation in government.

Sprint, the Government Digital Service’s annual event that looks at the progress of digital transformation and gives us a taste of what is to come, last year felt quite euphoric. It felt like then GDS director Mike Bracken was making some real progress in Whitehall, that there was a dedicated team of people behind him and everyone was excited about the proposed idea of Government-as-a-Platform.

Bracken took to the stage and laid out his vision for ‘software as a public service’. He said:

We do need platforms, because we will get a more joined up government. And it represents a fundamental change to how we deliver public services. It isn’t about technology, it’s not about websites, they’re just a visual indicator – it’s really about our values. Government-as-a-platform is nothing if we don’t believe in values.

How come our systems and our processes and our technology doesn’t have any of the values that we have personally and in our working lives? We have to combine those. We think about our people as public servants, we think about our buildings as places where public services happen, and yet for decades we have not thought about our software as public services. Our software is a public service.

However, a lot has changed since then - mostly in terms of leadership. Francis Maude, then much-respected minister for the Cabinet Office, was shifted to a trade role and has since announced he will be returning to the private sector. And Mike Bracken, plus a number of people that worked closely with him, have since left GDS and taken up roles at the Co-Operative and set up their own consultancy.

There’s a new guard at GDS and the Cabinet Office and all eyes will be on them tomorrow at Sprint 16, as they begin to explain how they plan to spend £450 million over the next five years to ensure that government departments can build and secure usable digital services. Services that make a difference to citizens lives.

A shift in expectations

It’s strange, but expectations of the Government Digital Service have shifted massively over the short period of 12 months - for a number of reasons. Part of it is concern over the old guard leaving for pastures new, part of it is reports of conflict and failing projects, part of it is pressure following the focus on digital during the Chancellor’s spending review.

Last year it felt like GDS and digital was still a bit of a growing, underground revolution within the halls of Whitehall (I use those words *very* lightly), whereas now it feels like digital has a real presence and GDS has a lot to answer for. As always, this responsibility brings a great amount of pressure and more eyes on things going wrong.

And things will go wrong. That’s the nature of digital projects. Fail, change tack, do your research and testing, iterate and improve. But that isn’t always reflected in the headlines…

That being said, the Sprint event this week will likely form a lot of the dialogue over the next 12 months and people will be looking for answers as to how things will progress.

And if we take a quick look at the agenda for the event, it’s clear that Sprint 16 is going to be about what GDS 2.0 stands for and it’s approach.

First up is new Minister for the Cabinet Office, Matt Hancock, where the agenda says he will “set out the UK Government’s transformation programme for the next 4 years”.

Later in the day Chris Ferguson, GDS director of digital, and Kevin Cunnington, DWP director general of business transformation, will take to the stage to talk about Government-as-a-Platform and we will see “first hand” some of the platforms being built and used by department teams across government.

We will also hear from Paul Maltby, the government’s director of data, and a panel of experts, on why data is a “foundation for the transformation of government”. This will be of huge interest to the audience I’d imagine, as data restructuring and plans around registers are central to Government-as-a-Platform.

Chief technology officer Liam Maxwell (someone that has been around since GDS’s early days) will talk about removing barriers to improving technology - something he’s very familiar with, but continues to be a challenge for government departments.

And finally we will hear from GDS executive director Stephen Foreshew-Cain. The new leader. On the agenda, it says Foreshew-Cain will talk about “scaling up the change” and setting out his “personal vision for how GDS will collaborate with departments to make large scale transformation a reality across the UK Government”.

As you can see, this Sprint is going to be about going deeper into transformation than GDS has done

previously. This is no longer about ‘lipstick on a pig’, but is rather about restructuring the way government works (according to the agenda at least). I think that’s what people want to hear more of, so let’s hope the event delivers on that.

The hard stuff

It’s likely that GDS will also have to answer a number of difficult questions on the day. And it needs to have good answers to these questions now, otherwise people will begin to lose faith in its capabilities.

For example, one of the biggest challenges GDS faces, along with most of Whitehall, is what to do about skills.

I’ve written recently about how if Government-as-a-Platform is to go ahead, this will require some seriously good in-house technical skills. These skills will need to be acquired at a time when departments are cutting back extensively on resources and there is a tendency towards bringing in contractors to plug gaps when needed.

This isn’t a long term solution and there’s a serious skills gap in departments. What’s the solution? Training up existing staff? Hiring people out of university in the hope that they stay? Raising salaries? People will want answers to these questions.

Equally, GDS has had a tough time lately explaining why things went wrong on its rural payments project. The problem seemed to be old versus new, and clashes around approaches, so how will this be resolved going forward?

I heard a story recently about a project in a large Whitehall department, where conflicts were terrible between in-house staff, GDS staff and agency staff that had been contracted in - with the general attitude being: ‘projects fail all the time, so who cares?’.

GDS needs to make a convincing case for why it’s a good thing to be a civil servant in 2016.

And finally, with big digital projects happening at the likes of HMRC, attendees will want to know how GDS is planning to help departments successfully transition away from those all important outsourcing agreements.

It’s been spoken about for years, but it’s now crunch time and people want evidence of success. Can GDS

provide that? I personally hope to hear more about that tomorrow.

Equally, some clarity needs to be provided around this idea that government can be it’s own marketplace. How is that going to work? I’ve been provided off the record soundbites about how the roadmap, but more detail need to be fleshed out so that Government-as-a-Platform isn’t just a pipe dream.

My take

Sprint 16 is going to be very telling. Expect lots from us over the next few days.

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