Tom Loosemore reminds us just how much digital government is flailing in the UK

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez November 26, 2018
One of the co-founders of the Government Digital Service, and now partner in Public Digital, Tom Loosemore gave evidence to the Science and Technology Committee on their inquiry into digital government - and it made for interesting viewing.

Tom Loosemore GDS digital government
Tom Loosemore

Today, Tom Loosemore, accompanied by Dafydd Vaughan, both co-founders of the Government Digital Service (GDS), answered questions by MPs on the achievements and failings of the government in adopting internet-era ways of working. During this session, Loosemore reminded us just how little leadership and direction we are currently receiving by those in charge at GDS and from the centre of government.

By way of background, Loosemore helped draft Martha Lane-Fox’s influential report on digital government, which kick started the creation of GDS and led to a huge disruptive phase of embedding digital across Whitehall. From around 2010 to 2015 Loosemore, along with then Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, and previous GDS chief Mike Bracken (plus whole host of other influential people), sought to shift the focus in government from outsourcing and big government contracts towards end-user need, iterative services, open standards, integrated teams, and better design principles.

However, after Loosemore & Co left government, the interests of power waiting in the wings have begun to reverse some of the good work done. It’s been well documented here on diginomica/government and you can read some of the background here, here and here. Simply put, we’ve been deeply concerned that the old ways of working have begun to creep back in and that there has been a lull in momentum from the centre, thanks to a lack of ambition at the top. We have started to see evidence of GDS being dismantled as a result.

However, in typical Loosemore fashion, Tom reminded us today that there are still good people doing good work in government and that there is still hope to correct recent failings. But it needs strong leadership and a strong centre. I heard more interesting ideas in the hour and a half session today with Loosemore and Vaughan than I have in the past two years out of GDS (which is an indictment of the leadership, not the people working there).

Anyway, instead of forming this into a traditional story layout, given the amount of content coming out of the session today, and given Tom can articulate it better than I ever could, I thought it might be more digestible to break down Loosemore’s ideas into themes and just pull his best quotes together. Each quote should be taken as an individual point - I have collated them from throughout the session, so they don’t necessarily flow from one to the next. Here it goes…

On what digital government is about...

“It’s as much about a way of working. The notion of working in small teams, multi-disciplinary teams, bringing the technology and design skills back into government, to be able to deliver in the same way that Google, Amazon, AirBnB and the best start-ups deliver...multi-disciplinary, iterative, incremental, constant improvement, feedback loops, embracing open source, communicating openly. “

“There are no bits of government that can ignore adapting what they do, right down to their policies, to the internet era. We are still in the foothills as a government of adopting internet-era styles of delivery - the humility to start by accepting that you don’t understand what citizens actually need and want. And that you iterate your way humbly towards getting the policy outcome you want, rather than pretending you know the answer upfront.”

On the importance of a strong centre and spend controls…

“That function of the centre, to challenge constructively how departments are spending their technology money, was quietly the most important lever that GDS had. To encourage departments to do the right thing. That has gone. Someone described to me that GDS’s IT spend control function as them now turning up and they’re like bird watchers. That is terrifying from my perspective because I worry that the momentum towards using open standards, smaller companies, commodity technology, breaking contracts up into small chunks, owning the knowledge of service design and technology - I worry that switch is turning the wrong way again.”

“I still think you need a strong centre. They don’t need to be as disruptive as we did. I think that strong centre has weakened. You need a centre that is able to encourage departments to do the right thing in a very constructive and collaborative way.”

“I think you start with a GDS. If you look at governments around the world, they’re all setting up their GDSs. I think there has been a willful, deliberate, misdirection of the centre in supporting and challenging departments. I would recreate that very, very quickly.”

On the failure of leadership…

“The first thing to say is that the kind of leadership you need at the start of this disruptive process, is not the kind of leadership you need in the middle. We were very aware of that. We were quite disruptive, in a positive way. So, we knew when to leave. I think after the election, it was the right time to hand over to the likes of Stephen Foreshew-Cain, who took the role of GDS at the centre was not to disrupt, but was to support departments and agencies trying to do the right thing. That’s what I’m worried has stalled. If you are in a department, trying to do the right thing...the grain is still far too against you. You still need support at the centre and I’m not sure that support is as active. “

“It’s on the public record that the chief executive of the civil service [John Manzoni] wishes that department sovereignty is maintained. So the buck stops there. You need that strong centre. At the end of the day you need a civil service leadership that can provide continuity and can help ministers understand that this is an important long-term mission, long-term change.”

On rethinking institutions and a platform government…

“What’s interesting about Estonia is the institutional architecture. The shape of government. They reinvented the shape of government when the Russians left. They have an institutional architecture that has horizontal layers. It has data sharing baked into the accountability model. We are in the 19th century in terms of institutional models. I would love to see that shift. If that were to shift I would be the first person back.”

“I think there’s a view that’s very persistent at the Perm Sec level, that for me is terrible - that their department is sovereign and their job is to protect the sovereign interests of their department. Their departments are not legally sovereign. That is far too prevalent. That is where the likes of Denmark and Estonia have been able to jump over, that departmentalism. That’s cultural, deeply cultural.”

“I’d love to see an ambitious, open-hearted, reform led by collectively by a Perm Sec layer - that says ‘we are going to work differently, we are going to have horizontal layers’. And for that you need a strong centre too. And I’m not sure the chief executive of the civil service is either chief or executive. Remember the Perm Secs don’t report to him.”

“The force of the internet will make that happen. It just depends whether we are first or whether we are a laggard. It will happen. How do we have a minister for personal data? How do we have a minister for payment? Not just a department for x, y and z.”

On the need to rethink the relationship with the Treasury…

“I think one of the really interesting elements here is the Treasury, and the business case process with the Treasury. You’ve got a Treasury that likes to spend Capex on big projects. It’s easy. This world is not about Capex, it’s about teams. Investing in teams that continuously improve and develop. One of the problems with Capex is that your business case is 5-10 years. I’ve read too many of them that were made up nonsense, false certainty all over the place.”

On the future of digital government...

“I am cautiously very hopeful of the medium term because I know of dozens of mid-to-senior level civil servants that have experienced this way of working and embrace it fully. They don’t always get the freedom to adopt it how they’d like. But they aren’t going anywhere.”

“The reason I am here, being as candid as I am, and losing friends, is because I think it is fixable. I think there are so many great people still in GDS, and more importantly elsewhere in government, trying to do the right thing. It’s very far from being a lost cause. But I do worry when I work with other governments and I see the pace that they’re moving. And I don’t see the same pace here. There’s a real urgency.”

My take

I’ve been quite disheartened in recent months about the progress of digital government, mostly because I simply hear nothing at all from anyone about the mission. I was beginning to give up hope in the agenda, but Loosemore has reminded me that there is still ambition within the Civil Service to make this happen. And some people are working hard at it. We can only hope that the inquiry by the Science and Technology Committee reinvigorates some passion in the centre. However, ultimately, change is needed. New leadership in particular. Interested in the job, Tom?

Image credit - Image sourced from Parliament TV

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