After the departure of key executives, the Government Digital Service (GDS) has been going through something of an upheaval recently. Chief Executive Mike Bracken, and his deputy Tom Loosemore were amongst those who headed for the exit. Minister Frances Maude, a key driver of digital transformation within government, has moved into a trade position and is now returning to the private sector.
The new-look organisation was still backed by George Osborne in his during the spending review, to the tune of £450m.
Yesterday, 11th February, GDS hosted its annual Sprint conference, where the new leadership could lay out its vision for what was to come. Here are the key points:
1. Big name advisers announced
Matt Hancock, Maude’s replacement, announced that some major names were being brought in to give advice on how GDS can deliver digital public services.
The group of advisers will meet quarterly and will include the CEO of LoveFilm Saul Klein, ASOS Chairman Brian McBride, Hermann Hauser, the founder of Acorn Computers and ARM Holdings, and the co-founder of lastminute.com Baroness Lane Fox.
Hancock said: "We are recasting the relationship between the citizen and the state – all with the goal of making people’s lives better.
"I’m thrilled to have these experts onboard and looking forward to working closely with them to discover and build the new digital infrastructure."
2. Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration
Collaboration was one of the big watchwords at the conference yesterday, with Bracken’s replacement Stephen Foreshaw-Cain stating that his team would not build every digital service in government, but would work with departments. "We won’t be building them all. I’m going to say that again, because I get asked it a lot: to be very clear: we’re not going to be building them all in GDS. We are going to make sure they get built," he said.
Hancock shared similar sentiments. He said: "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."
Both GOV.UK Pay and Gov.UK Notify were demonstrated during the course of Sprint, which is part of GDS’s drive to government as a platform, a simpler way to manage transactions between citizen and state.
The Director of Gov.UK Pay, Till Wirth, service said that currently Government makes it too hard for people to pay it, and that this needs to change. The service will link government services and the payments industry in a manner akin to PayPal.
Gov.UK Notify operates on similar principles, but will make it easier for officials to use emails, letters and text messages to keep the public up to date with their requests to governments.
Hancock acknowledged this in his remarks, and said: "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."
There is an awful lot of data stored across government, and the system can be incredibly messy with the same data held in multiple places.
Hancock cited the example of a list of countries of the world. This might sound like a simple data set, but in fact it holds seven different times, which results in different lists having different numbers of countries on them, according to Alison Daniels who leads digital transformation in the foreign office.
Hancock vowed that the government would introduce canonical registers, starting with the list of countries. He said doing this 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," he said.
Digital recruitment in Whitehall
Doing many of the things list above will require significant digital talent and skills. Whitehall accepts that it faces a major recruitment effort to this.
Hancock based this on a very patriotic call to arms: "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," he said.
Foreshaw-Cain meanwhile promised that "We will make the civil service a destination for people who want their skills to make a real difference to society. And we will make sure that this profession represents the people we are building services for, by challenging ourselves to build a truly diverse and inclusive workforce."