Is GOV.UK being sabotaged from within government?

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

All does not appear well over at the Government Digital Service, which is overseen by the Cabinet Office, as it welcomes its second new leader in less than a year.

Stephen Foreshew-Cain (pictured) is to be replaced with immediate effect by the Department for Work and Pensions’ digital lead Kevin Cunnington, just as the new minister Ben Gummer takes over at the Cabinet Office from Matt Hancock.

Foreshew-Cain had only taken over as executive director from GDS founder Mike Bracken nine months ago, with his former boss heading to work as chief digital officer at The Co-op.

Writing on Medium, Foreshew-Cain thanked Francis Maude for his efforts on setting up GDS back in 2010, with GOV.UK designed to replace the previous Directgov service. The GDS project was prompted by an inquiry led by tech entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox.

In his post, Foreshew-Cain said of his team and the culture created at GDS:

“Individually you set the example of how to challenge the status quo and by your example, show (not tell) it was possible that users’ hearts shouldn’t sink whey they needed to do something that meant dealing with government; that government services could be simple, could be clear, and could be fast…

“What we really mean is that we want to transform people’s lives. And to transform the services that improve people’s lives, we have to transform some entrenched government practices. And we can only really do that in a lasting way by transforming the culture of service delivery.”

Unfortunately, this transformation of civil service culture now appears to be in jeopardy. Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party and former Minister for Digital Engagement, has called it a “classic Whitehall power grab”.

He wrote in the Huffington Post that:

“The Home Office has already quietly removed its most senior digital leader and similar positions in the Cabinet Office, DWP and HMRC are reportedly under threat. The mandarin machine is taking advantage of the summer hiatus to launch a minor coup, with the Sir Humphreys of Whitehall effectively trying to repatriate powers to their respective departments. The new cabinet office minister, Ben Gummer, must not allow them to succeed.”

This point is echoed by former GDS team member Andrew Greenway:

“It‘s easy to dismiss this as office politics. But it matters. For GDS’ faults — and there are plenty  —  it has been responsible for a new generation of bright, committed people into central government. It made a career in public service relevant to people who grew up with the internet.

“Many of these people will not stay, because there are few other places for them to go in government. They’ll be fine — there is no shortage of companies desperate to hire their talents. Whitehall will suffer. So will everyone reliant on public services delivered by a second-class bureaucracy.”

The Treasury reckons that GDS helped government save £4.1 billion over four years, with leaps and bounds made across agile product development, cross-department collaboration and transparency.

On Twitter, former head of GDS Mike Bracken gave particular nods to the (not overwhelmingly loved, but good efforts of) Verify, Notify, Pay and GDS Renewal services.

Foreshew-Cain’s civil servant boss John Manzoni has highlighted (among other things) his achievement in securing four years’ funding for GDS.

In the 2015 Spending Review, £450 million was set aside for GDS, as part of £1.8 billion put towards government digital transformation as a whole.

This appears to be secure, as it was flagged as a key part of the new hire announcement from the Cabinet Office. So what now? 

Tom Watson said: “Theresa May’s new Government must renew the Digital Service’s political mandate for this Parliament and beyond. If it does so, I guarantee that Labour will continue to support its work. 

“Government services shaped by the needs of citizens should never be at the mercy of the whims of Whitehall mandarins.”

That (likely) needs to be argued for by Civil Service CEO John Manzoni. No easy task when you’re one of the only people who’s been around more than five minutes!

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