After another summer of turmoil at the Government Digital Service (GDS), with several senior executives leaving and a new chief brought in to the surprise of many, expectations for its new strategy are understandably high.
You would presume the top civil servants in the Cabinet Office have equally high expectations after deciding that Kevin Cunnington was the right person to lead the digital transformation of government, instead of predecessor Stephen Foreshew-Cain who was unceremoniously dumped.
But if the leaked early draft of the new strategy is anything to go by, you have to wonder if the response wouldn’t be: “Really? Is that it?”
The draft plan contains no revelations or surprises; no stunning new insights or fresh ideas. It contains few measurable targets. One would hope that, at some point during the internal discussions leading to the final version, someone might suggest putting some dates and measures in to track progress.
Frequent use of words like “better” and “improve” are not enough – with £450m to spend, GDS needs to offer more than good intentions. How will services be better, by when, and how will we measure their improvement?
When talking to Computer Weekly recently, Cunnington acknowledged that the expectations on him are high – with visible change expected by the end of the current Parliament.
“What I’m trying to create is a narrative where the Cabinet Office minister [Ben Gummer] can say to people that Britain will be very different in 2020 because we’ll be a much more digital government,” he said.
It’s important to point out that the document seen by Computer Weekly is not the final version – it has yet to receive feedback from Whitehall departments, and will be further discussed within the Cabinet Office before it’s finalised. The version due to be published before Christmas could be very different – although that in itself would be instructive, to see what was changed, added or taken out, and more importantly, by whom.
Of the five objectives described in some detail in the draft, four are little different from what GDS has been doing for some time – government as a platform; data and identity; digital skills; and improving the technology used by civil servants.
Those four could have been published as part of a GDS strategy at any point over the past year – I’m told that much of what’s in there derives from an earlier document written by former strategy director Janet Hughes, one of the now-departed executives.
Even what appears to be the newest objective – “end-to-end transformation” of public services and back-office functions, is a goal that has been talked about for a long time, even if it’s not been formalised in an official strategy. In many ways it’s the critical part of the plan, the aspect intended to deter persistent criticism that GDS does little more than make prettier websites.
But it also encapsulates the biggest challenge – and surely, the one that Cunnington has been brought in to deliver – that of convincing departments and their permanent secretaries to agree to a plan that could see much of their back-office capability overhauled and potentially combined with other departments.
The siloed nature of the civil service is widely seen as the biggest blocker to digital transformation of government – but the siloed nature of the civil service is what most permanent secretaries are employed to sustain. The “permsecs” are effectively CEOs of their departments, answerable only to their ministers, responsible for all financial and budgetary affairs and for delivery of the services for which the department is responsible. Theirs is not a naturally collaborative role across departments.
Remember too that permsecs are also responsible for the Brexit implications for their departments, a task likely to be given greater priority than any digital overhaul.
And it’s those same permsecs – some of them, at least – who have actively lobbied to diminish the influence of GDS. The appointment of Cunnington – previously director of business transformation at the Department for Work and Pensions – was widely perceived as a compromise towards the permsecs by bringing a departmental man into the centre to run GDS, with all his understanding of what it’s like to be in the silo.
Some of the phraseology in the draft strategy cuts right across the conventional thinking of permsecs in big departments, for example:
- “Transforming the way government delivers… instead of being constrained by current organisational boundaries.”
- “When services are designed around the user, they often cut across organisational boundaries.”
- “We need to design services as a whole, underpinned by deep, whole organisation transformation.”
- “Government needs to change the way it delivers and operates itself. That means deep transformation that includes the digitisation of not just the front end or the service, but the back-office functions as well.”
- “Full transformation is about more than just the service a user experiences – it means ‘deep transformation’ of the organisation that provides it.”
Few outside observers would disagree with any of those statements, but they could prove to be the most contentious. Credit is due to Cunnington for including them – and even more credit if they are still there in the final version.
Full credit would be due if permsecs and departments actively buy in to such statements as well, and subsequently implement them. The digital transformation of government will not happen unless they do.
It’s probably fair to say that the world doesn’t need another journalist trying to explain why Donald Trump won the US presidency right now.
Nonetheless, I think that we in the technology sector need to look at both the shock being felt by many people at his victory, as well as the jubilation of those who won, and understand the role that tech played in enabling the rise of Trump – and the lessons we need to learn.
When writing in this blog about the impact of the digital revolution, I’ve often used the phrase, “technology fragments” – using “fragment” as a verb, not a noun.
The usual context for that phrase is to explain what happens to businesses in markets that are being changed as a result of technology innovation. The most commonly used word by technologists for this process is “disruption” – a word that fails to accurately portray the way the digital revolution works.
What tech does is fragment markets – it breaks them down into component parts, atomises them, takes away old barriers to entry, and opens up those markets to new entrants with very low startup costs, thereby shaking up the established old order.
Take Computer Weekly as an example. Where once we were a print magazine, protected in a market with high startup costs (the cost of printing, paper, ink, distribution, people), now we operate in one where anyone can write an article that our readers might be interested in, at no cost, and publish it to a potential global audience. Where once we provided tech news once a week only on printed paper, now we provide content daily on a website, through video, in PDFs, on social media, via email, and so on.
Our market has been completely fragmented – broken down into its constituent parts and opened up to anyone with an inclination to take part. The same thing is happening in the rest of the media industry. And it’s happening in retail, in entertainment, it’s starting to happen in banking and elsewhere.
The signs of technology fragmenting the old order are everywhere to see in business.
So if it’s happening there, who’s to say that the same trend isn’t affecting wider society? You could make a reasonably convincing argument that the protests represented by Brexit and President Trump are just such a social fragmentation in action, enabled by technology.
Much has been written about the influence of social media around Brexit and Trump – the creation of echo chambers where people only read articles that support their views, and only see comments from like-minded people. That’s certainly an example of fragmentation – the atomisation of opinion. It hinders one side from understanding the fears and concerns of another.
In the US as in the UK, technology has both hollowed out local journalism and enabled the creation of high-profile single-issue websites with often extreme views.
At the same time, an increasing number of us access such content through top-secret algorithms that determine what we are most likely to click on – and based on which adverts we’re most likely to respond to.
Those algorithms are closed and protected. They are unregulated – and yet they determine information gathering for millions of people.
Facebook is often singled out here, but Google is perhaps a better example of the risks inherent in algorithmic selection. Its search results – by far the most popular way to find information on the web – are decided by a software program that attempts to determine, on our behalf, what is a “quality” website and what is not; what is “relevant” content and what is not.
If – as Google often does – that algorithm changes, then some websites who no longer fulfil Google’s secret, unregulated criteria for quality and relevance, lose out and disappear from the top of the search results. Is that not, in some way, a subtle form of unregulated censorship?
We are on the cusp of a new phase of the digital revolution, led by artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. We will be expected to put our trust in unregulated algorithms for more and more aspects of our lives. Let’s not forget the role that financial trading algorithms played in causing the 2008 crash, too.
Increasingly, those algorithms will be replacing people’s jobs. What happens to those newly jobless workers, and who is preparing the workforce and society for this potentially huge change?
Not governments, yet – and certainly not the tech companies that will make it happen.
I’ve also written here in the past that there is a very strong risk the digital revolution could cause the same sort of social unrest that happened in the industrial revolution, as those who felt left behind by technological progress fought back to protect their livelihoods.
Sound like anything else that’s been said lately?
Another fact being bandied about after the US election relates to driving being one the most popular jobs in the US. According to US websites I’ve seen, the country has 2.9 million truckers and delivery drivers, 674,000 bus drivers, and 181,000 cab drivers and chauffeurs.
If and when driverless vehicle technology becomes mainstream – probably within the next 10 to 20 years – what happens to those 3.7 million jobs? Is anybody planning for what to do, and how to retrain those workers?
The past eight years since the great banking crash have shown that few Western governments are inclined to invest sufficiently in the sort of skills training and career transfer ecosystem needed to ensure that people in markets fragmented by technology are not left behind.
Brexit and Trump are widely perceived to be a result of the anger of working people who felt ignored by an establishment who foisted austerity on them, while the people and corporations that caused the crash prospered.
Technology undoubtedly played a huge part in enabling that situation – much as it has allowed those angry people to come together behind the likes of Trump and Nigel Farage through a fragmented media where strident voices are algorithmically fed to them.
Technology has given us the benefit of choice – but it also allows those choices to be narrowly filtered for purely commercial reasons, potentially to the detriment of social progress.
Silicon Valley culture
Meanwhile, perhaps we need to once more question the role of Silicon Valley culture here.
The Ayn Rand inspired, everyone-for-themselves approach of many tech entrepreneurs has, undoubtedly, led to great innovations that benefit us all. But it also rides roughshod over anyone left out of that digital progress. Who of the driverless car entrepreneurs are proposing ideas for how to help the out-of-work drivers their innovations will create? Their usual response is that “the market” will provide the answers. The last eight years has shown that “the market” does not.
Instead, we get billionaires in the Valley like Peter Thiel who wants to create an offshore island to avoid inconveniences such as taxes, regulations or employment rights in favour of unfettered entrepreneurialism. Look at Elon Musk, who wants to create a colony on Mars.
It’s no surprise that Silicon Valley has been a proponent of the movement for California to secede from the US. If you don’t like the laws of the land, make your own. Society –thanks to technology – thereby fragments. This is not a healthy attitude if you want to marry digital and social progress together.
In the UK, we might finally be starting to have some of these debates. The ongoing court case about the employment status of Uber drivers could be an opportunity to have a mature, forward-looking discussion about how 20th century employment laws need to change for 21st century jobs.
In the Uber case, both sides are partly right, and both are partly wrong. Uber is correct to say that it has attracted plenty of taxi drivers who want the flexibility of work on offer, and are happy to be considered self-employed. These sorts of jobs are growing in the so-called sharing economy – there’s a similar debate around Deliveroo drivers.
Uber is also wrong to say that it has no obligation towards the employment rights of its drivers. But it would be equally wrong to prevent Uber from using workers who feel they don’t want a blanket rule for how they should be employed.
The answer is somewhere in between – in devising employment rights that fit the new style of jobs that will increasingly be created by digital innovation.
But we are not having that conversation, at a time when many of our accepted, democratic, liberal social contracts are already being questioned. The digital revolution is only going to fragment those social norms even more, unless we acknowledge it and work to prevent that happening.
A networked society
Another phrase I’ve often used here is that technological progress is inevitable and unstoppable – barring any extreme Trumpism perhaps. A digital society is going to be very different from an industrial society, just as an industrial society was very different from the rural society it displaced.
For a start, a digital society will be networked, not hierarchical. That has huge implications for “the establishment” and “the elites” – phrases we’ve heard a lot in recent weeks. If Brexit and Trump represent a backlash against those at the top of the hierarchy, then it’s a step towards the networked society of the future.
Unfortunately it’s a step forward that has instead been co-opted by populists like Trump, who have one foot in the elites but who understand how to appeal to the frustrations of many of those who are not. A networked society offers progress – it is (or should be) by its nature equal, open and democratic. Populism led by the people can be a good thing. Populism led by political opportunists, perhaps less so.
The tech sector is making this happen. The reactions to Brexit and President Trump show us, in my opinion, the very real risks of what could happen if we allow society to fragment. Let businesses fragment through technology – that’s called competition. But people are not companies. Society is not “the market”.
Technology needs to be inclusive for everyone – it cannot allow some to be left behind purely for the benefit of others. The digital revolution will mean we need to evolve our 20th century social contracts for a different age. The technology sector needs to ask itself, seriously and soon, what its responsibilities are to making that change happen in a way that supports social progress and inclusivity, not fragmentation.
IT contractors working in government are under pressure like never before over their tax status, and many people in Whitehall IT fear that a clampdown on the use of temporary staff could lead to a damaging exodus of vital digital skills.
HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) is closely scrutinising government departments’ use of contractors and in particular whether contractors are eligible to be taxed under controversial rules known as IR35. Freelancers using IR35 are treated as off-payroll, and are typically employed by a limited company of which they are a director – and as such, avoid PAYE tax on their contracted earnings.
HMRC wants to clamp down on contractors abusing the system by making public sector bodies treat them as salaried workers unless they can prove they conform to IR35 rules. Furthermore, forthcoming IR35 tax avoidance reforms will see public sector organisations assume responsibility for determining how limited company contractors should be taxed. It will be up to the public body to decide if the contractor has to pay tax through PAYE at source, rather than through their own personal companies.
At present, the onus is on contractors to declare themselves “outside” of IR35, to avoid being taxed in the same way as a permanent employee, and to conduct their business in a way that does not risk them being considered one.
For digital leaders in government, the need to prove contractors’ eligibility for IR35 is an additional level of paperwork and bureaucracy they could do without. For contractors, it’s a hassle that could cause many to leave the public sector entirely.
To give an example of what’s involved, Computer Weekly has seen a form being used by several departments to help determine the status of contractors. The paperwork runs to seven pages, and includes 38 questions that have to be answered by both the contractor and the civil servant employing them. Bear in mind there are hundreds of contractors in big departments – and this form would have to be filled out by and for every one of them.
The questions try to define the working relationship between the organisation and the contractors to see if they have – in HMRC’s terms – the same tax status as a direct employee. Here are examples of a handful of the questions:
- Are there in-house employees doing the same or very similar work or tasks as the worker?
- Does the worker work as part of a team while delivering the engagement? Please give details regarding ratio of civil servants to contractors
- Are you, the worker, obliged to provide a substitute if you cannot attend for whatever reason? If you are not obliged to provide a substitute, can you provide a substitute during this particular engagement?
- Could circumstances arise where the worker would provide a standard professional weekday’s work, without this being charged to the department? If yes, please provide details of all instances of this.
- Is the department obliged to provide the worker with continuous work throughout the period of engagement? For instance in circumstances where project milestones are amended
- Can the worker refuse work offered to them by the department during the engagement?
- Is the work subject to monitoring / evaluation, such as internal quality review, peer review, gateway review etc? Please provide as much detail as possible.
- Does the department have the right to direct the worker about working methods or when the work is done? If so, to what degree – please give detail.
- Does the worker follow a pre-determined business or programme plan in achieving work deliverables?
- Does the department restrict the worker from doing work for other customers or clients during the course of the engagement?
- How long has the worker worked for the department and how many times has the worker had his/her contract extended while working for the department? Please ensure that each extension is listed to give a complete record of your engagement with the department
Even from that small selection, the tone and intent of the questions are clear – to define, as closely as possible, if the job being conducted by the contractor is equivalent to that being done by a full-time employee.
Most IT contractors told they will be taxed like employees will simply walk away, leaving potentially huge gaps in capability at a critical time for the progress of digital government transformation. This was demonstrated earlier this month at the UK Hydrographic Office, an agency of the Ministry of Defence, where a dispute over IR35 led to a mass walkout – 30 of 32 freelancers left, causing major problems for ongoing IT work.
Meanwhile, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has released over 300 IT contractors at short notice amid rumours (which the department denies) of a massive overspend in its DWP Digital team.
Pros and cons of contractors
Many civil servants resent the spending on contractors, who receive on average £600 per day, while staffers carry on through tiny austerity pay rises on already below-par wages. Interim staff sourced through big IT consultancies can cost as much as £2000 per day.
But government executives like contractors because they can be brought in and let go at short notice, with no need for employment costs such as national insurance and pensions. In digital government, the difficulty of recruiting scarce technology skills – with private sector employers sometimes offering two or three times the civil service salary for permanent IT jobs – means a huge reliance on short-term or interim workers.
Since the creation of the Government Digital Service, there has been a welcome move to bring technology skills back in-house – rather than relying on outsourcers. The number of digital and IT staff in the civil service has grown significantly – but still not by enough to fill every requirement, hence the importance of supplementing them with contractors.
A National Audit Office (NAO) report earlier this year into use of consultants and temporary staff in government showed that IT and project management staff account for 54% of the annual spend on freelancers. IT skills take up 11% of external resources brought in, but 25% of the money spent – a recognition of the high cost of hard-to-find technology and digital skills.
Acknowledging the reasons and the challenges behind this trend, the NAO said: “Two-thirds of the largest government projects are related to transformation IT and service delivery programmes… [But] significant skills shortages remain in the areas needed to transform government, including project management and IT, which are common specialisms of consultants and temporary staff”.
The ultimate irony of the crackdown on contractors’ tax status, of course, is that if they desert the public sector, IT chiefs will be forced to turn again to the big outsourcers and consultancies – many of which are adept at exploiting local accounting regulations to minimise their tax payments in the UK.
But for the progress of digital government at such a critical time, the prospect of losing many of the contractors upon which they currently rely is a serious concern.
This week’s slightly-better-than-expected GDP figures show the importance of the tech sector to not just the UK economy but to any plans for our international trade relations once we leave the European Union.
The Office of National Statistics highlighted the “computer programming” and communications industries as key contributors to a 0.5% quarterly growth. Tech is and always has been a highly international sector, both in trade terms and in sourcing skills, and that’s a critical part of the success that is helping the UK maintain economic growth in politically troubled times.
But already we’re seeing the potential risks if Brexit is handled badly, and more specifically from the fall in the value of the pound.
Microsoft, Apple and Dell have all increased UK prices to reflect the decline in sterling, and research suggests that cloud customers will be paying a lot more over the coming months too.
That’s why it’s vital that the government makes a strong and positive statement of action for the digital economy very soon. We’ve heard little from the Chancellor or the Prime Minister yet on their plans in this area, but the hints from ministers are positive.
Digital economy minister Matt Hancock has put his weight behind what he calls “full fibre” broadband roll out – the focus on fibre to the premises that has been sorely lacking from past government pronouncements or from BT. Hancock has also suggested that plans are afoot around R&D, startups and skills.
It seems likely that the government’s planned industrial strategy will include digital industries, and its aims for national infrastructure projects could include broadband and 5G mobile too. Both would be welcome developments.
The tone of such comments suggests that the autumn statement on 23 November – Philip Hammond’s first budgetary update since taking over as Chancellor – will reveal more details. We can only hope.
Over the next year we will see important developments in the UK’s tech infrastructure, as Microsoft, Amazon and Google open up local datacentres to support their cloud businesses. These services are intended for UK businesses and the public sector, but also offer a springboard for the UK cloud sector to take a lead across Europe and beyond. We also hope, of course, that any success those suppliers achieve as a result is fairly reflected in the taxes they pay in the UK.
The government will understandably be focused on the implications of Brexit for the next couple of years – particularly once Article 50 is invoked. But it cannot allow that focus to diminish support for the digital economy, which will be central to UK success as our future plans emerge.
Computer Weekly’s first opportunity to meet with Kevin Cunnington, the new director general of the Government Digital Service (GDS) answered a lot of questions – but raised plenty too.
It’s important to start with the caveat that Cunnington is still very new to the job – barely two months at the time of writing. And he is yet to publish his new strategy for GDS – because that plan requires ministerial sign-off from his boss, Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer, he is limited in how much he can reveal until that approval is forthcoming (it’s due to be published by the end of the year).
So it’s perhaps understandable if there were a few mixed messages coming from his first briefing to the press.
Cunnington stressed that GDS’s remit will essentially stay the same. Core projects such as Common Technology Services, government as a platform, and the Gov.uk Verify identity assurance system continue, and he insisted that (contrary to persistent rumours) GDS will still develop software and maintain its current levels of staffing. “I’m not planning on stopping anything we’re doing today,” he said.
But he also emphasised that “you have to expect [GDS] to change” and that ultimately “it is the departments who deliver”. Plus, he revealed he is internally reviewing Verify – “looking at all the things we now need to do to make Verify a success”.
He acknowledged the relationship between GDS and those Whitehall departments has been “adversarial” at times, and admitted that GDS intends to relax the spending controls that caused many departments a lot of frustration.
But he also he wants GDS to be “much more involved in the minutiae of the work that departments are doing” – an ambition that seems at odds with the widely stated desire of many big departmental teams to have greater autonomy and fewer controls from GDS.
He acknowledged that GDS has grown and encouraged the use of SME suppliers in delivering digital services, but revealed he has been speaking to “quite a few” big IT suppliers about his plans to find out what they think, “because obviously they have a set of expertise and credibility”.
In one clear break from the past, Cunnington said he supports the move by several departments to end the split between separate CDO and CTO roles that was firmly established by one of his predecessors, GDS’s inaugural director Mike Bracken.
“I’ve always felt the [organisational] distinction between digital, data and technology is somewhat artificial,” said Cunnington.
“It’s time to bring [those roles] back together because having them apart actually causes a sense of confusion and boundaries that don’t really exist in reality.”
Cunnington’s former home, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and the Home Office, have both merged CDO and CTO roles back into one – something anathema to Bracken who felt that having a single CIO in charge was a sign of outdated, old-school thinking. That’s not to suggest he was right, of course – just that his view was different.
Some sources suggest that GDS remains under close scrutiny from above over a lack of delivery success – if true, Cunnington’s honeymoon period will be short and his ability to strategise and overhaul operations will be limited by the need to show concrete improvements in key areas, in particular Verify.
At the time of his appointment, the Cabinet Office – and specifically, its permanent secretary and CEO of the civil service, John Manzoni – never properly explained the rationale for bringing in a new GDS chief, nor why the previous incumbent, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, was so unceremoniously dumped.
To this observer, there seemed little substantive difference between listening to Cunnington outline his plans, and hearing Foreshew-Cain do the same in the past. The only notable change was Cunnington’s welcome desire for a more nationwide footprint for GDS, which has been criticised in the past as being too London-centric.
Both emphasised the need for closer collaboration with departments, and to improve that relationship. Both understood the importance of getting the government data strategy right, to underpin wider digital initiatives. And both saw the goal of GDS as transforming government, not simply developing better websites.
The next few months will offer an important opportunity for Cunnington to demonstrate how his approach differs from the past, and to prove that his strategy will accelerate the delivery of digital transformation by the end of the current parliamentary cycle in 2020 – little more than three years away.
As citizens of the UK try to decipher the new thinking and emerging rhetoric of a post-Brexit-vote government and a new Prime Minister, for us in tech there is already a welcome change of tone in one vital area.
For six years, we were constantly told by former digital minister Ed Vaizey what a great job BT was doing in rolling out so-called superfast broadband – the fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) and copper to the home service that BT somewhat erroneously refers to as “fibre broadband”.
All that time, the broadband sector beyond BT was asking, what about fibre to the premises (FTTP)? Fully fibred broadband is clearly the future – recognised by the world’s leading digital countries, such as South Korea or Japan.
But all the old government was concerned about, so it seemed, was the fact our broadband was better than our European counterparts in France, Germany, Spain or Italy.
Perhaps the new Brexit spirit of presenting Britain as a global trading nation beyond the European Union has seeped into the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Vaizey’s successor, Matt Hancock, is clearly trying to change the conversation around broadband. This week, he rightly described FTTP as the “underpinning of a digital nation”. He added that “the price we’ve paid” for rolling out FTTC to 90% of UK homes and businesses was that only 2% of premises had access to FTTP.
This is, of course, what the non-BT broadband world has been saying for years.
BT, bless it, has seen the writing on the wall and is now talking in terms of accelerating its FTTP plans – about time too. But it’s still focused first on further sweating its copper last-mile infrastructure for as long as it can.
The push for FTTP was kick-started by Ofcom earlier this year, when its communications market review threatened BT with full separation of its Openreach operation – a threat that Hancock has endorsed. BT needs to show it is playing a leading role in FTTP roll out – and that also means fully supporting rivals who want to take the initiative themselves using BT’s poles and ducts.
A Brexit Britain cannot and will not be internationally competitive unless it is also one of the world’s leading digital nations – and that means FTTP broadband for all.
Theresa May has promised investment in Britain’s infrastructure – we await the November autumn statement to find out how far she is willing to go in building the digital infrastructure that will be vital for our future economic prosperity.
The Government Digital Service (GDS) is an uncertain place at the moment – or so the rumour mill says.
The team are carrying on with their pre-existing strategy – one that was written last year to justify a £450m budget, but which has never been published, and is now likely never to be released. Everyone knows there is a new strategy on the way over the next couple of months, and nobody is quite sure how different it will be.
Kevin Cunnington, the director general of GDS, is writing that strategy – now known as the Government Digital Transformation Strategy – with the help of the trusted lieutenants he brought from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) when he was catapulted into his new job in August.
Some GDS insiders claim that Cunnington is said to feel “overwhelmed” by the role – I have no idea if that is true or not, or if people loyal to old regimes would rather like it to be so. If it is true, you can hardly blame him given the level of expectation and anticipation around his future plans.
But it’s understandable if GDS staffers feel a little unsure of the future. As well as a new boss, and three outsiders brought in from DWP to help write the new strategy, they have a new minister in Ben Gummer, and a Cabinet Office permanent secretary in John Manzoni who is poorly perceived and little trusted. They see a respected former minister in Francis Maude publicly expressing his concern for the future direction of GDS.
And they see senior, popular GDS leaders deciding to leave. There are stories of middle managers quitting too, claiming to be disappointed with the way they see GDS going – but you get that in any organisation, and it’s quite possible that is little more than natural staff turnover.
No break up of GDS
GDS will not be broken up – that has been promised by Cunnington. But it’s possible – probable – that his GDS will be very different, and it won’t be long before we find out how different.
Some of the rumours are somewhat esoteric – like one that claims Cunnington doesn’t like the bunting hanging from the ceiling all around GDS’s Holborn HQ, and that it won’t be there anymore when the team move to their new Aldgate office next year.
Another rumour says that Cunnington has told people to stop using the phrase “the strategy is delivery” – this was the founding mantra of GDS, the defining statement repeated often by former chief Mike Bracken. But the biggest question that people inside and outside GDS want to know is whether delivery is still going to be part of the strategy at all.
I’ve been told by several sources close to GDS that they expect Cunnington to significantly reduce the amount of software development carried out by GDS – this may not be an overnight move, but taking place over time. It is said that he sees GDS as a transformation unit similar to his former DWP operation – with delivery done elsewhere (also as in DWP, where delivery was owned by technology director Mayank Prakash).
Sources have talked of a Venn diagram doing the rounds in the Cabinet Office – three overlapping circles labelled digital transformation, organisational transformation, and manifesto commitments. The story goes that Cabinet Office executives see GDS existing in the area those three circles overlap – and no further. If true, that would risk GDS becoming little more than a central policy and standards unit of the type that GDS was established in 2011 to replace.
But add in some prototyping capability, or even a small development function for producing early beta versions of cross-government digital platforms – and do we then start to see a picture of where GDS is headed?
That remains, for now, a rhetorical question.
It seems certain that some of GDS’s powers will be devolved back to departments – particularly the big departments that have lobbied to lessen GDS’s influence. The question is what powers, and to what extent?
For example, those departments have long complained that the GDS spending controls have become a hindrance and a delay to their digital plans. They resent having to bring their project plans and investment budgets to GDS for review and approval. According to one Whitehall departmental insider, departments believe that “the team at the centre had insufficient expertise to assess what they’re doing, and kept telling them ‘no’ without being able to mentor them on how to do it better.”
As a result, Manzoni asked Ministry of Defence (MoD) CIO Mike Stone earlier this year to review the GDS controls mechanism.
Not surprisingly – according to sources – a CIO of a big department initially recommended devolving spending controls back to big departments, and leaving GDS to oversee small departments with less digital expertise.
It seems a compromise was reached – projects would be classified according to their risk profile, with low risk projects devolved to departments; medium risk ones monitored occasionally; but high risk initiatives subject to full GDS scrutiny. Instead of departments bringing projects to an under-prepared GDS and seeing them delayed, all projects planned for the next 12 months would be put onto a forward “pipeline” so everyone could see what needed approval well in advance.
GDS announced last month that it’s in the early stages of piloting new ways of operating the controls process, so we may find out the preferred outcome soon.
But what about that £450m budget? What’s that going to be spent on if GDS devolves power and delivery capability back to departments?
Sources have suggested that some of that cash could be used as a “seed fund” where GDS invests in departmental projects that have a wider use across Whitehall – effectively, instead of GDS developing all the cross-government digital services itself, they give departments money to do it for them and keep a watching brief.
But this is all still speculation, and only Cunnington and his close companions really know.
For example, there was a strong rumour doing the rounds recently that Common Technology Services – the team run by former DVLA CTO Iain Patterson to roll out better technology for civil service staff – was going to be moved out of GDS. When asked by Computer Weekly, the Cabinet Office denied that absolutely – “No truth in this one at all,” we were told.
GDS may be a hotbed of rumour, uncertainty and speculation for now – but we await the truth, and it needs to come soon.
We didn’t hear much about the digital economy during the recent political party conferences.
Prime minister Theresa May made a throwaway comment in her big set-piece speech suggesting a recognition that more needs to be done to improve the UK’s broadband infrastructure, but that was about it.
That minor reference wasn’t insignificant though, coming a few days after business secretary Greg Clarke told the Institute of Directors that “broadband and mobile coverage is simply unacceptable in 2016.”
For the last five years we’ve been consistently told by government that we have the best broadband infrastructure of all the big European countries – so it’s quite an about-turn to start talking in those terms. We’ll have to wait and see what it all means.
But the big topic that has concerned the tech community – and many others – was the Tory rhetoric around immigration and overseas workers employed in the UK.
As Computer Weekly highlighted at the time of the Brexit referendum, UK IT remains highly dependent on non-UK skills – in startups, venture capital, IT suppliers, and in IT departments across the country.
As the most international of professions, IT has always been a global melting pot, with skills following demand. If there are plenty of IT professionals in the UK who don’t have UK passports, it’s because we’re a growing digital economy, doing interesting things and attracting the top talent.
Those same reasons also contribute to job creation for UK IT experts too – and explain why we still have a serious digital skills shortage.
Today, many of those overseas IT professionals have come from across the European Union. In recent years many came from India. Going back 10 or 20 years, you couldn’t walk through an IT department without hearing Australian, New Zealand or South African accents. It’s the way it has always been, and it’s one of the reasons we have such a thriving technology sector.
It goes the other way too. Remember that our most famous IT professional, Tim Berners-Lee, worked for Cern, a European venture based in Geneva, when he invented the web. He was a great British tech export.
There are noises coming out of government that senior figures in May’s team recognise the importance and significance of the digital economy to their future plans for the UK. Support for training and development for UK citizens to help bridge the skills gap would of course be very welcome. But we will never take a place among world-leading digital nations if we ignore the historic international nature of UK IT.
Followers of the ups and downs of the Government Digital Service (GDS) will be aware of the question marks surrounding the future of the organisation and the Whitehall in-fighting over its role.
The Cabinet Office denies such speculation, of course, and instead insists that the recent surprise appointment of former Department for Work and Pensions digital chief Kevin Cunnington to take over GDS is a sign of confidence in its future role.
But it’s difficult not to raise an eyebrow when former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude – the man who created GDS and backed it throughout his five-year tenure in the last parliamentary cycle – expresses concern about what’s happening.
Credit to Public Finance magazine for reporting Maude’s comments during a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference this week.
Maude reportedly said, of GDS: “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.”
He continued: “Just when the UK has 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.”
That “power of the mandarins” comment echoes former GDS chief Mike Bracken’s observation on quitting GDS in August 2015 that he was concerned about “reverting back to mandarin-led lands of authority”.
Cunnington is reviewing GDS’s plans and activities and is expected to reveal his strategy in the next couple of months. Now that Maude has added his concerns to the mix, the scrutiny of where GDS goes next will only become more intense.
Not that long ago, Microsoft was a mess. A 1990s giant losing its way in a world of smartphones and cloud services, but still a hugely important legacy supplier to corporate IT chiefs.
In 2003 on this blog, I wrote this:
“I really hope Microsoft ‘gets it’ soon. There is no pleasure to be taken from watching the world’s most successful software company getting old and out of touch, revelling in its own ‘dad dancing’ moves even as the dance floor empties in embarrassment.”
I later learned that the “dad dancing” phrase got widely circulated within Microsoft, and I took a bit of friendly stick for it from the company’s PR team.
The problems that Microsoft had in 2003 haven’t gone away. The PC market is still in decline, putting future revenue from the once-flagship Windows software in long-term doubt. Windows Phone has been a disaster, as has the purchase of Nokia’s handset business. Microsoft’s tablet sales haven’t been much better. Its software pricing and licensing models are still a nightmare – ask any IT leader.
But today, those problems matter a lot less, and that’s thanks to the enlightened approach brought in by CEO Satya Nadella.
It’s clear that he doesn’t see Windows as the future of the company. Windows 10 has been effectively given away for free – unprecedented for the old Microsoft – even if the software is imperfect and the roll-out has been a little sneaky and aggressive at times. But nobody complains when Apple wants everyone to move to the latest version of iOS.
Windows Phone will hang around for a while as long as there is some corporate demand for it, but it’s dead as a consumer product.
But when you hear Nadella talk now, he’s having a very different conversation to his predecessors. He’s talking cloud, open source, Hadoop, data science, APIs, machine learning, artificial intelligence. Azure is firmly established as the number two cloud platform after Amazon Web Services. Sure, Microsoft has been a bit sneaky – its sales tactics haven’t changed entirely – in the way it’s encouraged users to switch to cloud-based Office 365 instead of on-premise Office, and in pushing people to Azure instead of Windows Server. But that’s not such a bad thing.
Microsoft grew on the back of Windows being the default platform for the PC. Windows instead became the default platform for Microsoft, even after users no longer cared. Nadella has been smart enough to see that Microsoft’s future is as one of the leading cloud platforms – note: leading, not default or dominant – and that means more openness, more interoperability, more recognition of a heterogeneous ecosystem instead of a proprietary environment owned entirely by Microsoft where if you’re not on Windows, you can’t play.
For the many CIOs who, not long ago, were openly discussing plans to move off Microsoft entirely, there is now some reassurance that their once-trusted supplier can be trusted again. In little more than two years at the helm, Nadella has taught Microsoft some new moves, and they’re looking a lot better on the dance floor.