No 10 adviser Dominic Cummings and his Silicon Valley ambitions for the civil service have put digital, data and technology in the spotlight – but where does this leave the former bright light of UK tech, the Government Digital Service (GDS)?
For many years, “government IT” was the punchline to a joke that wasn’t funny. People trying to deal with government departments picked up the phone or sent letters rather than experience the grief of going online.
But by using the tools of the open web – simple words, clear design, open source code, agile ways of working – one team in government managed to build some public services fit for the internet era. They didn’t seek to amaze citizens; just make their experience simpler, clearer and faster.
That team – the GDS – was set up nine years ago with a brief from the then Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, to haul the civil service into the digital age. It started well. The UK government’s new website, gov.uk, was many times cheaper than its predecessors and even won design of the year in 2013. New online services for setting up a power of attorney, taxing a vehicle and booking prison visits, among others, made a mark. Entrepreneurs described GDS as “the best startup in Europe’. David Cameron lauded the team as “one of the great unsung triumphs” of the coalition government. Five years after the team started, the UK led the world in digital government, according to the UN. Other countries took note, and copied.
The trick GDS pulled off was to realise that the game wasn’t about changing websites. It was about changing government. The digital team saw that parts of public services, such as sending lots of text messages or taking payments, were being developed separately by scores of public organisations, at great cost to the public purse and making systems harder to use. By 2015, the GDS team had rebuilt some of these common components to be used again and again across the public sector. The service also published patterns and code, and enforced standards, to give everyone an incentive to raise their game.
This paid dividends, in better public services and money saved: a whopping £1.7bn by 2014, according to the Cabinet Office. As a result, in the November 2015 budget and spending review, GDS was handed a £450m bounty in what then cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood described as a “vote of confidence”.
Even in its pomp, GDS was not universally loved; senior civil servants described the kids in jeans as an “insurgency”. But the real problem was the challenge it presented to the sovereign power of Whitehall departments. Changing government was not on their agenda, nor in their interests. Common components took away control. So for that £450m, there was a tacit quid pro quo: GDS would support departments, not lead them. That shift, demanded by the chief executive of the civil service, John Manzoni, and encouraged by permanent secretaries who had been embarrassed by GDS, was a tipping point.
While GDS has retained some of the country’s smartest technology talent, its purpose has drifted. From once receiving grudging respect from departments for its rallying cries, it is now peripheral. A top-level post for government chief digital officer has gone unfilled for more than a year. This July, the UN announced that the UK had slipped to seventh in its world e-government rankings, falling six places in four years.
This leaves some awkward questions. Aside from the world-class platforms and patterns that were already taking shape five years ago, where did the £450m go? For better or for worse, it hasn’t gone into the data foundations so desired by the present administration. Whatever Cummings is looking for, he hasn’t found it in GDS yet.
Some of GDS’s legacy is in plain sight. Some digital successes have been the dogs that didn’t bark during the pandemic. HMRC, universal credit and parts of the NHS have delivered online services that have just about stood up to extraordinary new demands. Without GDS starting out by showing departments how to deliver, rather than telling, this would not have happened.
And GDS did something else that no other team had done before. It led everyone using public services to expect a half-decent experience of their government online. It did this by worrying more about user needs than mandarin egos. For Britain to be a leading digital government, it needs a digital team that leads.