Opinion

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What’s next for the Government Digital Service?

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Behind the scenes, the GDS has introduced revolutionary practical and ideological change across public services in the last five years. A bold assertion maybe, but once you’ve finished picking over how many exemplars did and didn’t make it, the savings made by Gov.uk, or the merits (or otherwise) of GaaP, you are left with the undeniable truth that the whole game has changed for the better.

Of course I would say that, but with countries across the globe (Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and the US to name a few) cloning the GDS approach, that sincerest form of flattery bears out what I am saying. This was echoed by James Norman, UK Public Sector CIO at EMC during the launch of a report on the future of government digital services at the end of last month.

We all know the story of our illustrious leaders Martha, Maude and the mighty Bracken, but it is what a bunch of extraordinary people within the civil service did that is the interesting part. There is a perception that GDS was formed of young lads with beards and slogan-bearing t-shirts (and there are a fair few), but the mix of new people from the private sector, brave career civil servants and a great set of suppliers is where the magic really happened. 

This mixed bunch managed to balance a healthy degree of challenge (backed up by formal controls) with the ability to collaborate, whilst convincing a vast swathe of the government that services could be simpler, clearer and faster. In fact, EMC’s report found that 42 per cent of UK businesses want simpler navigation and language in government online services to simplify engagement. This was also amplified by the civil servants outside the GDS. 

Whilst we had some success as a team, they key was that people in departments took the brave step to actually trust and believe us. They were accountable for success or failure and backed our approach against huge internal resistance. For me, this is the big lesson, and the thing that private and public sector alike need to adopt. During my time as Transformation Director I was lucky to see Sean Cornwall (Travelux’s CDO) speak at an event. He hit the nail on the head for me with his key principles, which I took as:

Be humble – the people you are working with know their business better than you.

Don’t ghettoise yourself culturally – fit in, assimilate, and respect the prevailing culture.

Get out there in the business – don’t sit in an ivory tower. Get on the ground where the work happens.

To a large degree this was the approach we used and it is where we had the most success. That spirit of endless collaboration is where I think GDS now needs to be heading. In my latter days in the civil service I was amazed that the conversations with leaders in departments had simply moved on. It was no longer about “can we or will we?” They were coming to me to say that they were doing it and I could help them.

Providing support, skills and guidance is key to fostering collaboration, which is supported by EMC’s report, emphasising the need to build collaborative platforms to drive efficiency. One of the reasons I joined Methods Digital was to carry on that work with departments and agencies. However, GDS can also provide the important ‘top cover,’ as it is called in the civil service: An umbrella that protects ambitious civil servants in their quest to build world class digital services.

We now wait to see what the spending review will bring. The GDS is about to be thrown into that process for the first time, which I know will be tough for the people and their leaders. My biggest fear is that GDS doesn’t continue, but I don’t think that will happen. My own view is that there will be a smaller GDS that provides a central pool of expertise, standards and controls. As with the original model, this can be supplemented from the market. There are some things like Verify that just need to be done by government, and GDS is the right place for these platforms. 

The next wave of transformation in government will need to build on the excellent user-centred service design that we saw across the exemplars and address the many challenges experienced by businesses and citizens in their interactions with government. However, this needs to be mapped across many services so that the repeating patterns in user needs and hence services can be identified. There are already some good examples of this already in areas like licensing and grant giving. Once successful patterns are recognised then the common capabilities can be understood and built once, not duplicated in many silos. The success of this will hinge on my favourite word: collaboration.

Michael Beaven is former transformation director at GDS and director of digital at Methods Digital.

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