Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock took to the stage at the Government Digital Service’s (GDS) annual event, Sprint 16, to kick off proceedings and lay out his plan for creating a ‘gov tech market’ within Whitehall.
Hancock’s speech fleshed out a lot of speculation following the Chancellor’s commitment to digital during the spending review, which allocated GDS a substantial £450 million over the next five years.
However, with that money, comes a lot of pressure and a lot of expectations. In a way, GDS is now on a pedestal and it needs to prove that it can not only drive digital transformation from the centre, but also spread that transformation throughout departments in Whitehall.
And his talk today focused on a three point plan that shifts the discussion away from ‘digital transformation’ towards ‘business transformation’.
The key takeaways include building common platforms that can be used across government to build digital services that make it easy for citizens to interact with the state (Government-as-a-Platform), collaboration and reducing focus on the centre, reorganising how data is held and secured in government and creating high quality standards.
What i want to focus on is the mission we have to change and improve public services - a five year plan to make lives easier by using best of modern technology.
Our job is to transform the relationship between citizen and the state. We are on a journey from a government that was quite behind the times. We have proved that you can do this through brilliant examples, now we need to take this a step further.
We have started to generate a much broader market - what i call gov tech - for supplying technology services into government.
We need to move from exemplars to changing the way that government is executed. Not just a few transactions.
He added that, from the center, GDS needs to think about the users - what is the user need?- , it needs to dig down into the best of modern technology and focus on data, but it also needs to work across, “hand in hand”, with other departments, agencies and local authorities too.
This is a collaborative effort. Rather than having it separate, side by side. I don’t think of it as digital transformation, I think of it as business transformation. That’s when we change the culture, change the way things work.
Hancock reiterated that GDS’s role is about providing the very best thought leadership, supporting and challenging departments, providing high quality assessment of services that are developed and creating high standards that make it easy for departments to know how to build digital services and to make them interoperable.
Departments ultimately know their users, know their policy and know their business.
Some of the platforms being built by GDS that Hancock referenced include Pay, Notify, Verify and the Marketplace. (We will be hearing more about platforms later today).
We have got to concentrate not just on the tools we provide citizens, but the tools we have internally. I’ve been a minister in four different departments and the technology we use in government holds back the use of digital more broadly, because the kit we have is not just up to it.
In different departments as I’ve gone through them, I’ve seen different systems, organised in different ways with different interoperability with different departments. We are going to bring this common technology right across Whitehall.
Hancock added that the third and final element that is critical to creating the idea of a “gov tech market” is data. And thankfully Hancock has now publicly committed to the creation of canonical sources of data across the public sector - registers.
Simply put, registers are single sources of truth for certain types of data (company names, addresses etc), which are updated regularly and controlled by one authority. These then allow digital services to be built upon these data sources, rather than struggling with confused, multiple sources of messy data.
We need canonical registers. We are going to start launching registers in different areas. The first we are going to list is probably the easiest - countries of the world. We currently have got seven different lists for countries. We think that one list should be held by the Foreign Office. It’s literally laughable, but it’s absolutely at the heart of the project we have - to have canonical registers so that we hold data once. We make someone responsible for holding that data securely and keeping it up to date.
We are then going to move out and then move to other registers, which are mission critical for having high quality data. That will give an underpinning to some of the digital changes we want to be happening.”
It’s about building platforms, having common standards, challenge and support, and having collaboration across the board.
Hancock also responded to a question about the challenge ofattracting the right digital skills to make all of this happen. I’ve written a lot recently about how, if Government-as-a-Platform is to go ahead, departments will need to attract a lot of talented digital people at a time when they are having to make extensive cuts.
Equally, there is plenty of friction internally between internal departmental teams, contractors and GDS. How will this be resolved? Hancock believes that attracting talent will come down to attracting people to a mission that revolves around making our nation better with digital - a unique mission that can’t be found elsewhere. He said:
If you think about the high quality people that have come into government, in GDS and in departments, there are some brilliant people. What we need to do is make sure we attract people based on this mission. Yes pay matters, of course it does. But they are working as part of a mission for a nation we love. That is my call to arms. Whether that be a coder, or someone leading, you are playing a part. It’s a pleasure to lead that effort. It’s also important that we take people with us, everybody is learning about what digital transformation means.
Hancock impressed at Sprint 16. Whilst he doesn’t necessarily have the gravitas of Francis Maude, he did dive into details regarding data and platforms that have been somewhat avoided up until now. Which is good.
That being said, laying out a plan like he did is easy to do, executing it is a different matter. There has been plenty of challenges to date with just the exemplars GDS embarked on a few years ago. Moving deeper with Government-as-a-Platform and data registers will be extremely challenging.
Equally, will people come to work at departments just because it’s a unique opportunity? Maybe. But there are plenty of high paying opportunities elsewhere in the city that don’t carry the risk of being publicly shamed in the papers for getting wrong. It will be very interesting to see who comes…