Success of government digital service ‘being undermined’, warns Maude

4 Oct 16

The ministerial architect of the Government Digital Service, which was created to improve the quality of schemes to digitise public services, has warned that recent changes risk undermining the project.

Francis Maude was speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference on the impact of technology on public services. He cautioned that the work of the award-winning GDS was being undone.

It was announced in August that Kevin Cunnington was to become the new head of the digital service. He was previously director-general for business transformation in the Department for Work and Pensions. The DWP was one of the Whitehall departments that clashed with the GDS over its approach to the universal credit welfare reform.

Civil service chief executive John Manzoni has also recently highlighted a new collaborative approach that would see GDS work more closely with departments, improving the spend controls and service standard assessment processes.

Maude said that GDS, which designed and operates the gov.uk website and has helped drive savings worth nearly £5bn in the last parliament, was being undermined.

The lesson, Maude said of such developments, “is that it doesn’t happen spontaneously. You have to drive it centrally, and departments, separate ministries and separate agencies, prize their autonomy and they will always want to take it back, and that is now happening.

“Just at the moment when the UK has just recently been ranked top in the world for digital government, we are beginning to unwind precisely the arrangements that had led to that and which were being copied in America and Australia and also some other countries as well. This is for me a pity, there is a sense these old structures in government, which are essentially about preserving the power of the mandarins, are being reasserted.”

This would be “the enemy of successful innovation”, he predicted. “Cross-government platforms and cross-government services are absolutely the way of the future. There is a continuing need for very strong central strategic leadership with the power backing it up to stop the wrong things happening.”

Also speaking at the event, IPPR director Tom Kibasi said any dismantling of GDS illustrated “government’s extraordinary propensity to self harm”.

GDS was recognized as the best in the world, he highlighted. “It seems very odd to me that is being scaled back and unwound at just the moment that it appears to be successful.”

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