Adversity breeds innovation. The news that Tom Read has been appointed as the new CEO for the Government Digital Service has been met with delight by the public sector digital community and renewed hope for a return to the impact, energy and focus of the early years, writes Natalie Taylor, MD of Public Sector at Foundry4.
The first item on his agenda needs to be cultural reform, and recapturing the conditions that made the GDS so formidable in the first place – a dedicated team of digital transformation experts committed to driving change in the face of overwhelming odds.
The Government Digital Service was born in the aftermath of the global financial crash. At the turn of the decade in 2010, ambitious conversations were being held around a bold vision for digital reform within government. The focus on recovery and building back better was eerily similar to the priorities of 2021.
Although the word ‘unprecedented’ has now become a term to chronicle the pandemic, the inauguration of GDS deserves this label too. GDS was something of a world first – and paved the way for this to be mimicked globally – The United States, Australia and New Zealand all followed suit. This was a transformative framework to be implemented which would fundamentally change the way that government interacts with itself and wider society.
Ten years on, the GDS appears to have lost its sense of mission and purpose, criticisms of its recent performance are growing which is leading some to question whether it ever really did deliver its original promise.
It all starts with leadership. Initially chaired by Sir Francis Maude, and run by Mike Bracken, the GDS got off to a flying start. Innovations like the digital marketplace, G-Cloud, the digital service standard and the tech code of practice were adopted across central government.
I worked at GDS in the early years and experienced the truly game changing culture that Francis Maude and Mike Bracken implemented. This was the first Government department that sat outside of Whitehall, there was bunting in the office, people wore jeans and the walls were covered with Post-It notes. For the first time, the agile spirit of a tech start-up had come to Government.
The mission the GDS set itself was formidable – as Tom Loosemore summarises, “to implement the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations”. This was to be enacted across the vast complexity of legacy Government systems. Building services in an agile way with users at the heart represented a complete change from what had gone before, extending beyond Whitehall to agencies and parts of local government, which adopt their own standards based on the GDS original.
Each day was a battle – convincing departments to completely change the way they operated whilst also struggling with their own budgetary restraints. But every month Mike Bracken would convene the entire team, sometimes accompanied by Stephen Kelly, who was COO of the Civil Service at the time, to deliver a clear and inspirational rallying cry – what the GDS was doing would improve the British Government forever, and therefore the experience of users and taxpayers.
Despite this progress and vision, a lack of digital leadership and collaboration between government departments have resulted in stagnation. It is of no surprise that most progress was made under a respected and interested Minister – Maude. This undertone of political directive should not be dismissed – Maude had a mandate to support him. A 2020 UN Survey showed that several other countries have overtaken the UK in terms of digital government capabilities. As a result, the optimism and ambition of the first iteration of the GDS has become diluted and an appetite to see the next iteration of an effective GDS is yet to materialise.
Since Maude and Bracken’s departures, the GDS has had seven ministers in seven years. This speaks for itself – it is not feasible to implement palpable change without a significant period of time in charge. Constantly changing GDS leadership caused disruption and initiatives that were gathering pace became lost amongst the seesawing leadership position.
In the interest of being fair-handed, it must be said that once GDS had some traction and early success it could have defined its interactions with departments more coherently, which would have encouraged greater collaboration. However, a widespread lack of commitment from government departments to collaborate also hindered progress – innovation requires connected thinking. Of course, there are pockets of excellence within Government and the likes of the Department for Education, The Ministry of Justice and the Home Office have kept the flame of the GDS alight with truly innovative approaches to digital transformation. But for long-term, meaningful change the GDS needs to restore its drive to inspire the entire Government to embrace new technologies and practices.
There is now a window of opportunity for precisely this. The pandemic has taught us that technological change can really happen at pace and scale. Each and every one of us – be it in the corporate world or the GDS, have all fallen victim to underestimating the difficulty of moving off legacy business applications and how long it takes. Established banks, government agencies and telecoms operators have acquired their way to more modern situations – but very few have truly moved off business critical systems.
The welcome appointment of Tom Read as the new CEO and Director General of GDS has put digital reform back on the agenda once more. He has a weighty challenge ahead to take the reins of a floundering organisation with a checkered track record, but his background will serve him well. The pandemic has also taught us that change can happen rapidly – it is crucial that Read receives all the backing and support from Ministers and Officials. This should no longer be a parochial turf war, but a matter of national economic survival.
Read is one of the most popular and respected digital leaders in Whitehall. History would suggest that respect in Whitehall is crucial to progress. It will be imperative for Read to look backwards in order to move forwards and learn from the mistakes of the past. Read needs to go back to basics, work out the raison d’etre of GDS and then create a culture that empowers people to go after it. They need to become leaner and focus on doing fewer things, better. If Tom can put the bunting back up at the GDS, he will be moving in the right direction.
Against the backdrop of Brexit and the pandemic, the government needs to invest in this now more than ever before.